Total lunar eclipse and rare super blood wolf moon bedazzles sky-gazers

Most of the world was able to catch a glimpse of a rare super blood wolf moon during the total lunar eclipse.

Posted: Jan 21, 2019 10:50 AM
Updated: Jan 21, 2019 10:50 AM

It's not every year that a super blood wolf moon happens, so it was worth casting your eyes to the heavens overnight.

Most of the world was able to catch a glimpse of the rare event, but it was especially visible to the populations of North and South America, Europe and Africa.

If you saw the super blood wolf moon and are now wondering what that name even means, here's a breakdown of one of the first skywatching events of 2019.

What's in a name?

Basically, this rare total lunar eclipse happens at the same time as a supermoon. But there's a little more to it than that.

Lunar eclipses can occur only during a full moon, and this one was extra special because it was also a supermoon. A supermoon occurs when the moon is full and closest to Earth in orbit.

Overnight, the moon was in perfect alignment with the sun and Earth, with the moon on the opposite side of Earth from the sun.

Earth cast two shadows on the moon during the eclipse. The penumbra was the partial outer shadow, and the umbra was the full, dark shadow.

When the full moon moves into Earth's shadow, it darkens, but it doesn't disappear. Sunlight passing through Earth's atmosphere lights the moon in a dramatic fashion, turning it red.

Depending on weather conditions in your area, it may have appeared rusty, brick-colored or blood-red.

This happens because blue light undergoes stronger atmospheric scattering, so red light is the most dominant color highlighted as sunlight passes through our atmosphere and casts it on the moon.

So where does the "wolf" part come in? Each moon has its own name associated with the full moon. In January, it's known as the "wolf moon," inspired by hungry wolves that howled outside of villages long ago, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac.

When and where to watch

This unique total lunar eclipse ended early Monday at 1:51 a.m. ET.

"Viewers will see a normal full moon at first starting at around 10:35 p.m. Eastern time," said Walter Freeman, assistant teaching professor at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences' physics department. "At that time, the Earth's shadow will begin to pass in front of the moon, blocking almost all of the sun's light from reaching it. Observers will see the moon appear to be progressively 'swallowed up' starting from the lower left. This process will end at 11:40 p.m., when the Earth's shadow covers the whole of the moon's surface; this is the beginning of 'totality.' This will last until around 12:40 a.m., when the motion of the Earth's shadow will carry it past the moon, and the moon will gradually again be lit by the sun. At 1:45 a.m., the moon will be fully visible again."

The full eclipse began at 0440 GMT in the UK and appeared red at 0512 GMT, according to the Royal Astronomical Society.

North and South America, Europe and western Africa could see a total lunar eclipse, but eastern Africa and Asia could only observe a partial eclipse. To be even more precise, the Royal Astronomical Society said viewers in northwestern France, northwestern Spain, Portugal, the eastern Pacific and northeastern tip of Russia would see the total eclipse.

The next total lunar eclipse visible in the United States will not occur until 2022. The United States missed out on the longest total lunar eclipse of the century, which happened in July 2018.

But why don't we see total lunar eclipses more often?

"There is a little less than one total lunar eclipse per year on average," Freeman said. "A lunar eclipse can only happen during a full moon, when the moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. But the moon's orbit is tilted a little bit compared to the Earth's, so usually when the moon is full, the Earth's shadow passes a little bit above or a little bit below it. This is why we don't have a lunar eclipse every month."

Partial eclipses are more common.

The Virtual Telescope Project shared a live stream of the lunar eclipse at its brightest above the skyline of Rome.

And unlike solar eclipses, the lunar eclipse was safe to view with the naked eye or binoculars. It also afforded a unique view of the sky.

"A blood moon is one of the few opportunities we have to see both the moon and the stars in the sky at the same time, since the moon is usually too bright," Freeman said.

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