On Tuesday, December 21, we will be treated to a total lunar eclipse. December 21 is also the Winter Solstice, so we are having an eclipse on the first day of winter.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth. This can only happen when the Moon is full and lined up with the Earth and the Sun. It has been a while since we’ve seen one here in New Jersey. The last time was in February of 2008. Lunar eclipses are generally visible more frequently than eclipses of the Sun because they are visible over a wider area.
On the morning of Tuesday December 21, the full Moon can be seen high in the southern sky above the constellation Orion. The partial phase of the eclipse begins at 1:33 a.m. If you watch the Moon you will see it slowly entering the Earth’s shadow. It takes about an hour for the Moon to be completely covered. During this time you may see the Moon change color. It often gets a reddish or orange color. This is due to our atmosphere which filters out other colors from the sunlight which illuminates the Moon.
The total eclipse starts at 2:41 a.m., the maximum comes at 3:17 a.m. and ends at 3:53 a.m. The Moon then starts to emerge from the other side of the Earth’s shadow. It finally leaves the shadow at 5:01 a.m. and the eclipse comes to an end.
Unlike a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse is safe to look at without filters. You don’t need any equipment, just clear skies and your eyes. But a pair of binoculars can give you a close up view of the Moon’s surface during the event. Just simply go outside find the Moon and enjoy!
Later in the day you can celebrate the solstice at 6:38 p.m. At this point the Sun is at its most southern point in the sky so the days are short and the nights are long. This event marks the beginning of the winter season for the northern hemisphere.
Kevin D. Conod is the planetarium manager & astronomer at the Newark Museum’s Dreyfuss Planetarium.