Jimmy Westlake: August's total lunar eclipse


Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

Those of you who felt left out in the cold last March 3 - when the Eastern U.S. got to see a beautiful total eclipse of the moon and folks out West didn't - take heart, because the tables are about to be turned.

The Western U.S. will be the prime place to be in the wee morning hours of Aug. 28 when, for the second time this year, the full moon will slip into the Earth's shadow and be totally eclipsed. We haven't had two total lunar eclipses in the same calendar year since 2003.

If you go to bed before midnight on Aug. 27, the full moon will be casting its bright moonbeams through your window. But after midnight that night - at 2:51 a.m. MST to be precise - the top left corner of the moon will darken. Over the next hour, this darkness will slowly spread over the entire face of the moon until, at 3:52 a.m., the moon will be totally eclipsed. No longer will moonbeams be streaming through your window. Where the brilliant full moon once shone, there will be only a faint ghost of a moon, glowing with an eerie reddish hue. Although the moon will be completely immersed in the shadow of the Earth, the layer of air surrounding the Earth, our atmosphere, will bend and focus onto the moon the reddish rays of every sunrise and sunset on Earth at that moment. An astronaut standing on the moon just then would look up in the lunar sky and see the large black orb of the Earth backlit by the sun and surrounded by a bright ring of orange light. Back on Earth, the stars of the constellation Aquarius will shine brightly behind the moon while it is totally eclipsed.

This eclipse is a long one. The moon will remain totally eclipsed for a full hour and a half! Then, at 5:22 a.m., the top corner of the moon will begin to peek back out into the sunlight, but the moon will have sunk much lower in the west and the first hints of the coming sunrise will be spreading across the sky. The eclipse will end for us at 6:24 a.m., just minutes before the bright full moon, reborn, sets below the horizon.

If you miss this one, your next opportunity to see a total eclipse of the moon will occur in just six months, on Feb. 21, 2008, but the night air will be considerably more bone-chilling then. After that, the Western U.S. won't see another total eclipse of the moon until Dec. 21, 2010.

Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, , NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines.


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