Red moon shines tonight to astronomers’ delight

By Erin Nuckols

Students and faculty can view a total lunar eclipse tonight from the MacAdam Student Observatory where telescopes will be on hand for the astronomical event.

“It is perfectly timed, beginning mid-evening and ending about midnight,” said Timothy Knauer, director of the MacAdam Student Observatory, which opened in January. “Unfortunately, it will be cold.”

The physics department is setting up the telescopes at the observatory, which is located on the top level of Parking Garage No. 2 on Rose Street across from the Chemistry-Physics Building.

The viewing will begin around 8:40 p.m. and end shortly after midnight. Although a telescope will provide more magnification, the lunar eclipse will be visible in the south with the plain eye or with a set of binoculars.

A lunar eclipse takes place during a full moon and occurs when the sun, Earth and moon are in total alignment, with Earth in the middle.

“The Earth will cast a shadow on the moon,” said Nancy Levenson, a professor in the physics and astronomy department, “and the moon will start looking red.”

The exact color is unpredictable, Knauer said.

“All of the moon will be in Earth’s shadow, but it won’t be completely dark because light is refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere,” Knauer said. “The moon is illuminated by all the (Earth’s) sunrises and sunsets. Depending on junk in the atmosphere, (the moon) could be a dark red color or only darken to orange.”

During a total lunar eclipse, the moon travels completely into the Earth’s inner, darker shadow, called the umbra.

Two other types of lunar eclipses can also take place. A partial eclipse occurs when only a portion of the moon crosses into the Earth’s umbra, and a penumbral eclipse happens when the moon crosses only the Earth’s lighter, outer shadow, called the penumbra.

Although the event is not rare, a total lunar eclipse will not be visible again from this part of the world until December 2010, Knauer said.

“It’s fun to see something in the sky change,” he said. “You can actually see the pure orbital motion of the moon. I encourage (students) to bring digital cameras. It’s astonishing what you can catch.”

Students and faculty can get a weather update by calling the MacAdam Student Observatory at 257-5330 starting at 7 tonight.