On the night of 20/21 January 2019 there will be a total eclipse of the Moon, which will be viewable from many areas of the world. This will be worth making the effort to see, especially for my readers in the western USA and Canada for whom it will occur at a sociable hour.
The Moon during a recent total lunar eclipse – image from NASA
What happens during a lunar eclipse?
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth prevents some or all of the Sun’s light from hitting the Moon’s surface. This is shown in the diagram below:
Image from Wikimedia Commons
In this diagram:
- in the region marked umbra the Earth completely blocks the Sun from hitting any of the Moon’s surface
- In the region marked penumbra the Earth partially blocks the Sun.
The stages of the January 21 lunar eclipse
The next diagram below shows how the Moon will move through the Earth’s shadow on 21 January. The six points labelled P1, U1, U2, U3, U4 and P4 are known as the eclipse contacts and are the times when the eclipse moves from one stage to the next
(Adapted by the Science Geek from a NASA diagram)
At point P1 the Earth will start to block some of the Sun’s light from reaching the Moon. This will start at 2:37 AM GMT(UTC) and is the beginning of the penumbral phase. At this point the Moon’s brightness will dim a little, but this will be quite difficult to notice with the naked eye.
As the Moon continues in its orbit, more and more of the Sun’s light is obscured, until after about an hour some areas on the Moon will get no direct sunlight. This is known as the partial phase. It will start at point U1 which occurs at 3:34 AM GMT. The part of the Moon which receives no direct sunlight will appear dark, as shown in the picture below.
The partial phase of a lunar eclipse – Image from Wikimedia Commons
After a further hour the Earth will block all direct sunlight from reaching the entire Moon. This is shown as U2 is the diagram and this total phase will start at 4:41 AM In the total phase, rather than disappearing completely, the Moon goes a dull red colour as shown in the picture at the top of this post. This is because, even though no direct sunlight can reach the Moon, some light from the Sun is bent round the Earth’s atmosphere towards the Moon. This light appears red because visible light from the Sun is a mixture of different wavelengths – red light has the longest wavelength and violet the shortest. Most of the light of the shorter wavelengths (orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) is removed from this light bent by the Earth’s atmosphere by a process called scattering, which I discussed in an earlier post https://thesciencegeek.org/2015/09/30/why-is-the-sky-blue/ . The same effect causes the western sky to be red after sunset on a clear day.
Interestingly, if we could stand on the surface of the Moon during the eclipse we would see a red ring around the Earth.
The Moon will emerge from the total phase (point U3) at 5:43 AM, the partial phase (point U4) will end at 06:51 PM and the eclipse will finish (P4) at 07:48 PM.
The eclipse timings are summarised below
Data from NASA (2009)
Where can the eclipse be seen
Not all areas of the world will be able to see the entire eclipse. This is because the Moon will have already set after the eclipse starts or will not have risen before it finishes. Other places in the world will only be able to see part of the eclipse.
- In Manchester, where Mrs Geek and I live, the Moon will rise at 15:41 local time (GMT) on the afternoon of January 20 and set at 08:25 the following morning. So it will be above the horizon for the entire eclipse, However, we will need to stay up late or get up very early to see it 😉
- In Warsaw, Poland the Moon will rise at 15:10 local time (UTC+1) on January 20 and set at 07:48 the following morning. So viewers will miss part of the final partial phase and all of the final penumbral phase because these will occur after the Moon has set.
- In San Francisco, California, which is eight hours behind UTC the entire eclipse will be viewable and will take place on the evening of 20 January.
I have adapted the diagram below from NASA (2009) and this shows where in the world the eclipse can be seen.
The regions labelled A to L are as follows
How often do lunar eclipses occur?
Although the Moon takes roughly a month to orbit the Earth, lunar eclipses do not occur every month. The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is tilted at about five degrees with respect to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, as shown below.
This means that during most lunar months, as seen from the Moon, the Earth passes just below or just above the Sun rather than obscuring it. There are only two time windows in a year when a lunar eclipse can occur. These two points are known as the nodes (See note 2). Even then most lunar eclipses are partial eclipses where the Earth only partially covers the Moon.
- GMT versus UTC
Although the term Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is often used in popular writing it is no longer used by astronomers. Instead, they use two different times which agree with each other to within 1 second.
- Universal Time, often abbreviated to UT1, is the mean solar time, the time determined by the rising and setting of the Sun at the Greenwich Meridian, zero degrees longitude.
- Co-ordinated Universal Time, usually abbreviated to UTC, is the time measured by atomic clocks and is kept to within 1 second of UT1 by the addition of leap seconds.
In common use, GMT is often taken to be the same as UTC, which is the approach I have taken for this post. However, it can also be taken to mean UT1. Owing to the ambiguity of whether UTC or UT1 is meant, and because timekeeping laws usually refer to UTC, the term GMT is normally avoided in precise writing.
- Nodes when eclipses can occur
The two nodes when a lunar eclipse can occur aren’t the same dates every year but change from year to year due to an astronomical effect called precession of the line of nodes.
NASA (2009) Total lunar eclipse of 2018 July 2017, Available at https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEplot/LEplot2001/LE2019Jan21T.pdf (Accessed 1 January 2019)