2010-12-22

Winter solstice lunar eclipse

Two nights ago, people across North and South America, as well as some parts of Europe and the Pacific islands, had eyes on the sky watching a lunar eclipse. To make things even more exciting, one could note that it was also the Northern hemisphere's winter solstice. Those two events occur in every year, but the last time they occurred at the same time was in 1638; a fact documented in-person by Galileo.

"A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes behind the earth so that the earth blocks the sun's rays from striking the moon. This can occur only when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned exactly, or very closely so, with the Earth in the middle." [Lunar eclipse article - Wikipedia].

"The winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun at its maximum of 23° 26'. Though the winter solstice lasts only a moment in time, the term is also a turning point to midwinter or the first day of winter to refer to the day on which it occurs. More evident to those in high latitudes, this occurs on the shortest day and longest night, when the sun's daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest." [Winter solstice article - Wikipedia].

I enjoy observing the moon frequently throughout the year, especially during a lunar eclipse; Monday night was no different. I made my way to one of my favorite locations in Fort Collins, Colorado: Horsetooth Reservoir. Once there, I set up my telescope and settled in for a 2-3 hour show. I wasn't the only person looking up from Horsetooth Reservoir that night; the lot was packed with people of all ages, there individually or with their family and/or friends.

Initially, I was somewhat worried that cloud cover would prevent Fort Collins from having a clear view of the moon, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the clouds dissipate just prior to the start of the eclipse.

It's quite common for the full moon to appear a different color during an eclipse. For this one it was a blood red; almost taking on the appearance of Mars. Throughout the night, I invited people to look through my telescope at the moon as the Earth passed between it and the Sun. Some people commented that they "had never seen the moon up close before" nor in "so much detail"; I was happy that I could give them an opportunity to appreciate the wonders of our universe that much more.

The night was beautifully lit under the full moon, almost as if twilight had come again, but the darkness fell as the eclipse progressed and I was stunned to see so many stars; more stars visible than I have ever seen from that location before. Beneath the moon's spectacle, you could clearly see the constellation Orion; his arm seemed to be reaching out to touch the moon. Stretching across the sky I could barely make out the Milky Way. Adding even more wonderment to the sky, the trails of meteors flashed here and there and the faint waves of Aurora were visible along the Northern horizon.

As the moon began to leave the Earth's shadow, the clouds began to gather again; acting as a closing curtain on the celestial stage. I packed up my things and turned on the radio to hear one of my favorite songs begin to play: "Bittersweet Symphony" by The Verve; a calming end to a extraordinary evening.
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