By Steve Huffman
First the good news: A total lunar eclipse is on tap tonight, the last time such an event will transpire for more than two years.
And now the not-so-hot news: We probably won’t be able to see one iota of it.
“The forecast I’m looking at says we’re going to have a pretty solid cloud cover after 5 p.m.,” said Dr. Carol Miderski, a professor of chemistry at Catawba College who on occasion also teaches an astronomy class.
“The chances of us seeing anything are just about nil.”
And that’s too bad because, according to Miderski, tonight’s eclipse will be a mighty cool happening.
“A total lunar eclipse is something that’s pretty special,” she said. “It’s not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it’s still kind of neat.”
If weather forecasters should miss their call and the clouds not roll in until later, here’s what we’ll see.
Shortly after 7:30 p.m., the moon will begin entering the lighter penumbra portion of the earth’s shadow. About 8:45 p.m., as the moon enters the umbra, the actual eclipse begins.
The total eclipse starts about 10 p.m. and will last roughly 50 minutes. The whole shooting match will be done by 12:09 a.m.
“What you’re seeing, literally, is the shadow of the earth,” Miderski said.
She said the best way to view the eclipse is through the naked eye, doing so being better than watching through binoculars or a telescope.
Unlike a solar eclipse, it’s perfectly safe to view a lunar eclipse with the naked eye.
Miderski said the moon will rise in the east tonight and be relatively low to the horizon as the eclipse begins. By the time it ends, it will be almost directly overhead.
Miderski said a lunar eclipse leaves the moon with a reddish hue. It’s been compared, she said, to a harvest moon, though the colors of the two are anything but identical.
“You really only get that color during a total eclipse,” Miderski said of the shade the moon will take tonight.
She said Saturn will be in the moon’s vicinity during tonight’s eclipse, though to the naked eye the planet will be hard to differentiate from a star.
Tonight’s happening marks the last total lunar eclipse until the winter solstice of 2010.
Miderski said tonight’s eclipse would be a great one to watch with children, especially as the earth’s shadow begins to work its way across the moon’s surface.
“You can talk to them about the differences in the shapes and whatnot,” she said.
Alas, whether we can see any of this is beyond our control. Miderski said she was disappointed when she learned that forecasters were calling for cloud cover tonight.
“I was looking forward to getting out and watching the show,” she said.
And that, Miderski said, could still happen.
“We’ve got ringside seats if the clouds cooperate,” she said.
Here’s an informative link concerning tonight’s eclipse: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2008/13feb_lunareclipse.htm
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or firstname.lastname@example.org.