Tonight is one of the best skywatching nights of the year. The planet Mars blazes through the night like a brilliant orange beacon, with the bright star Spica nearby. But what really elevates the night is a total lunar eclipse, which takes place just a few degrees away from Mars.
The eclipse occurs as the Moon passes through Earth’s long shadow. The Moon’s orbit is tilted a little, so most months the Moon passes outside the shadow. This month, though, the geometry is just right, creating a total eclipse.
The Moon first touches the dark inner shadow at 12:58 a.m. Central Daylight Time. Over the following hour, the shadow will appear to take a bigger and bigger “bite” out of the lunar disk. The Moon will be fully immersed by 2:06, and will remain totally eclipsed for almost an hour and 20 minutes. Sunlight filtering through Earth’s atmosphere usually gives the eclipsed Moon a dark orange or red color, although your ability to see it depends on your viewing conditions and your color sensitivity.
The Moon will exit the shadow, bringing the partial eclipse to an end, a little more than an hour later.
And to add to the night sky’s entertainment, the star Spica huddles quite close to the Moon. At their closest, they’ll be separated by just a degree or so — the width of your finger held at arm’s length. Spica will look a bit pale next to the uneclipsed Moon, but should be especially beautiful as the eclipse unfolds.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.