Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Eclipse Elation

A tiny “cookie slice” of bright sunlight slowly crept across the moon’s surface as I began writing this post. The early morning total lunar eclipse of October 8, 2014, had completed its totality phase. The moon had passed out of the total shadow cast into space by the earth. The moon was returning to full illumination as the celestial bodies revolved through space and repositioned themselves from a nearly straight line. My wife later described the increasingly illuminated moon as “a lemon slice.” Still later, the full moon set in the west while still partially obscured by Earth’s umbral shadow. The lunar eclipse setting in the western horizon while the sun rose in the east was a natural spectacle of extraordinary beauty we shall not soon forget.

This lunar eclipse is the second of four closely spaced lunar eclipses in two years. These special lunar eclipses are known as “blood” moons for reasons not entirely clear. Every total lunar eclipse, however, has a dull reddish hue owing to sunlight bending around the thin earth atmosphere and falling on the moon’s surface. The series concludes in September 2015. It is called a “tetrad” and will not recur for another 18 years. Other eclipses, both lunar and solar, occur periodically. North American observers may look forward to a once-in-a-lifetime total solar eclipse visible across Middle America on August 21, 2017, upstaging even the spectacular lunar eclipse of October 2014. That rare eclipse will be visible by a much smaller population and is not part of the current tetrad. Eighty-five total lunar eclipses occur in this century. Total lunar eclipses are visible by people on half of the Earth’s surface.

Calculated precision of times, locations, duration of eclipses, and other details are known with incredible accuracy centuries in advance. This is testimony to the computational skills of scientists. It is also testimony to the orderliness of our universe and the Creator who set all things in place. 

Even as the eclipse was still in progress, I checked a National Geographic website for detailed information about this eclipse. Their reader comment section was already filling with enthusiastic remarks from the public. One responder stated, “(The lunar eclipse)…ties me into something ancient and profound within the universe and our world’s relationship with it.” I share that reader’s fervor, recalling many outdoor experiences at night when the moon, planets, and stars manifest the glory of God.

While observing this morning’s eclipse before the initial rays of daylight began lightening the sky, I was able to view Jupiter with its tiny moons and Andromeda galaxy, two million light years distant. The galaxy was faintly visible as a tiny “fuzzy patch” near the constellation of Cassiopeia. While searching with my binoculars for Andromeda, I was reminded that humanity has staked a claim to exploring a small portion of this cosmos: an earth satellite slowly crossed my binocular’s field of vision. I was able to follow its steady, dim light for several minutes as it headed north to south. Perhaps it was a U. S. Polar Orbiting Weather Satellite or a polar-orbiting satellite from another country.

Speaking of astronomical events occurring at precisely predicted times, I was reminded of an early morning, live astronomy observation event I offered my students in 1997. The opportunity took place long before the sun rose. Students were obliged to rise at about 5:00 AM and arrive at our school’s soccer field by 5:30 AM. The event was optional. Not all of my students were interested in losing sleep to see Mercury and Venus rise. Those who did were treated to a memorable event I dubbed “A Moment of Worship.” Here is a link to my post of October 25, 2008:

My post from December 21, 2010 addressed the topic of eclipses, especially lunar eclipses. This article fits with today’s event: