Total Lunar Eclipse Will Turn Moon Red for East Lansing

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014, 9:49 am
Aron Sousa

On the morning of Wednesday, October 8, East Lansing residents will be lined up directly between the sun and the moon, forming a syzygy (a frequent topic here at ELi’s astronomy column). East Lansing residents and the rest of the earth will cast a shadow on the moon beginning at about 4:17 am Wednesday, and in East Lansing the full moon will be completely in the earth’s shadow from 6:27 am until 7:22 am. Weather permitting, the lunar eclipse will be visible low on the horizon due west.

A lunar eclipse is a complex astronomical event with multiple stages, as the moon passes deeper and deeper into the earth’s shadow. A lunar eclipse can only happen during a full moon, i.e., when the moon and sun are on opposite sides of the earth. When the moon lines up exactly with the earth and the sun, the moon enters earth’s shadow.

That is straightforward enough—earth simply becomes the middle of three bodies in a line, and because East Lansing will be on the moon’s side, we get to see the moon go into eclipse—but the earth’s shadow is relatively complex and actually causes the moon to look reddish during a lunar eclipse, rather than becoming black. Here’s why:

The earth’s shadow is large and in the center is darker; the darkest part of the earth’s shadow is called the “umbra.” Around the umbra is the “penumbra,” or a less dark section of the earth’s shadow.

As the moon moves from being in the earth’s penumbra to being in the earth’s umbra—i.e., as it moves from being in the edge of earth’s shadow to being entirely in the earth’s shadow—light from the sun is refracted by the earth’s atmosphere and hits the moon. Essentially, the air above us acts as a lens bending the light that hits the moon. The moon reflects that light back to earth.

The bending of sunlight by our atmosphere is what provides the reddish light of sunrise and sunset here in East Lansing each day. (The longer-wavelength red colors bend in the atmosphere and wrap over the horizon in a way that illuminates clouds.) That same phenomenon is what creates the red color that characterizes a lunar eclipse.

And because this lunar eclipse will happen so close in time to our sunrise, it really will be the atmosphere of East Lansing bending light onto the moon. If an East Lansing resident were to go to the moon and look back at East Lansing during this lunar eclipse, she would see a very dark earth obscuring the sun, except for a bright red glow wrapping around the edges of the earth.

As mentioned above, for East Lansing residents, this lunar eclipse will happen very close to sunrise. The total lunar eclipse will end at 7:22 am, the sun will rise at 7:43 am, and the moon will set at 7:51 am. If an East Lansing resident happens to have an unobstructed view of the horizon (perhaps at the top of a building), it is possible (although not likely, given how flat East Lansing is) that the resident could see the sun at sunrise and the moon during the last part of the lunar eclipse.

It may seem impossible for someone to see both the sun and the moon and not have the sunlight shine on the moon as well. But this does happen. This is called a selenehelion event. These events happen with every lunar eclipse in places where the lunar eclipse coincides with the sunrise or sunset.

This seemingly impossible event occurs because the earth’s atmosphere bends light like a lens. If a selenehelion event manages to be observed in East Lansing, the light from the sun and moon will be bent down making each visible to the East Lansing observer, even thought the earth is still fully between sun and the moon.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

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