Lunar Eclipse + Solstice = Rare

After midnight tonight, a total lunar eclipse will occur across North America. Houstonians may or may not have a good view, depending on cloud cover. But one astronomer says it might be worth it to watch this rare astronomical event. KUHF health science and technology reporter Carrie Feibel explains why.

Astronomer Carolyn Sumners
Astronomer Carolyn Sumners holds a lunar globe at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

During a total lunar eclipse, the moon slides into the earth’s shadow. Theoretically, this would blot out the moon, making it black. But the earth’s atmosphere can bend some sunlight and scatter it across the moon. That’s why the moon can change color during an eclipse. Dr. Carolyn Sumners is the astronomer for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

“I’ve seen brick-red eclipses. I’ve seen eclipses that appeared to have no color, and some that were really kind of an orange-red color. And that’s one thing that you’ll have to wait tonight to see.”

Total lunar eclipses happen every few years. So if you miss this one, you can try again in 2014. But it’s very rare for one to take place on Dec. 22, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The last time this occurred was in 1638.

Now, the timing has no scientific value, but it does have some aesthetic value because the moon will be high in the sky. More people can see it, and it will look more dramatic. The moon starts entering the earth’s shadow at 12:30 a.m. and will be in total eclipse by 2:17.

“The only thing that’s going for us now, because it is a cloudy sky, is that the eclipse lasts a long time. And if you have from 12:30 to 4:01, you may have some clearing within that time period, and you get to see something.”

There are two viewing strategies, then. Stay up the whole time, dress warmly, and bring a hot drink and your camera. Or set the alarm for 2:15 and take a quick peek right in the middle of the action.