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Eclipses are a fascinating astronomical sight to behold. But this wasn’t always the case. Eclipses were often feared. In looking at the mythology, superstitions, and lore surrounding lunar eclipses, it’s clear—our ancient ancestors considered them to be bad omens.
Lunar eclipses occur when Earth’s shadow blocks the sun’s light, which otherwise reflects off the moon. There are three types — total, partial and penumbral — with the most dramatic being a total lunar eclipse, in which Earth’s shadow completely covers the moon. The recent one was a total lunar eclipse on Jan. 20-21, 2019 and was visible from North and South America, Europe and Africa.
Throughout history, eclipses have inspired awe and even fear, especially when total lunar eclipses turned the moon blood-red, an effect that terrified people who had no understanding of what causes an eclipse and therefore blamed the events on this god or that. Below, you’ll find the science and history of lunar eclipses, learn how they work, and see a list of the next ones on tap.
What is a lunar eclipse?
A lunar eclipse can occur only at full moon. A total lunar eclipse can happen only when the sun, Earth and moon are perfectly lined up — anything less than perfection creates a partial lunar eclipse or no eclipse at all. Some understanding of simple celestial mechanics explains how lunar eclipses work.
Because the moon’s orbit around Earth lies in a slightly different plane than Earth’s orbit around the sun, perfect alignment for an eclipse doesn’t occur at every full moon. A total lunar eclipse develops over time, typically a couple hours for the whole event.
Here’s how it works: Earth casts two shadows that fall on the moon during a lunar eclipse: The umbra is a full, dark shadow. The penumbra is a partial outer shadow. The moon passes through these shadows in stages. The initial and final stages — when the moon is in the penumbral shadow — are not so noticeable, so the best part of an eclipse is during the middle of the event, when the moon is in the umbral shadow.
Total eclipses are a freak of cosmic happenstance. Ever since the moon formed, about 4.5 billion years ago, it has been inching away from our planet (by about 1.6 inches, or 4 centimeters per year). The setup right now is perfect: the moon is at the perfect distance for Earth’s shadow to cover the moon totally, but just barely. Billions of years from now, that won’t be the case.
According to NASA, two to four solar eclipses occur each year, while lunar eclipses are less frequent. “In any one calendar year, the maximum number of eclipses is four solar and three lunar,” the agency said. However, while solar eclipses can only be seen along a roughly 50-mile wide path, each lunar eclipse is visible from over half the Earth.
Types of lunar eclipses
Total lunar eclipse: Earth’s full (umbral) shadow falls on the moon. The moon won’t completely disappear, but it will be cast in an eerie darkness that makes it easy to miss if you were not looking for the eclipse. Some sunlight passing through Earth’s atmosphere is scattered and refracted, or bent, and refocused on the moon, giving it a dim glow even during totality. If you were standing on the moon, looking back at the sun, you’d see the black disk of Earth blocking the entire sun, but you’d also see a ring of reflected light glowing around the edges of Earth — that’s the light that falls on the moon during a total lunar eclipse.
Partial lunar eclipse: Some eclipses are only partial. But even a total lunar eclipse goes through a partial phase on either side of totality. During the partial phase, the sun, Earth and moon are not quite perfectly aligned, and Earth’s shadow appears to take a bite out of the moon.
“What people see from Earth during a partial lunar eclipse depends on how the sun, Earth and moon are lined up,” according to NASA.
Penumbral lunar eclipse: This is the least interesting type of eclipse, because the moon is in Earth’s faint outer (penumbral) shadow. Unless you’re a seasoned skywatcher, you likely won’t notice the effect, in which the moon is subtly shaded by Earth’s shadow.
“The outer part of Earth’s penumbra is so pale that you won’t notice anything until the moon’s edge has slid at least halfway in,” Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, said in a statement.
The blood-red moon
The moon may turn red or coppery colored during the total portion of an eclipse. The red moon is possible because while the moon is in total shadow, some light from the sun passes through Earth’s atmosphere and is bent toward the moon. While other colors in the spectrum are blocked and scattered by Earth’s atmosphere, red light tends to make it through easier. The effect is to cast all the planet’s sunrises and sunsets on the moon.
“The exact color that the moon appears depends on the amount of dust and clouds in the atmosphere,” according to NASA scientists. “If there are extra particles in the atmosphere, from say a recent volcanic eruption, the moon will appear a darker shade of red.”
How to watch a lunar eclipse
Lunar eclipses are among the easiest sky-watching events to observe. Simply go out, look up and enjoy. You don’t need a telescope or any other special equipment. However, binoculars or a small telescope will bring out details in the lunar surface — moon-watching is as interesting during an eclipse as anytime. If the eclipse occurs during winter, bundle up if you plan to be out for the duration — an eclipse can take a couple hours to unfold. Bring warm drinks and blankets or chairs for comfort.
“We can get really good science out of what happens to the surface of the moon during total lunar eclipses but again, the cool thing is that the moon changes color,” Noah Petro, a research scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland claimed. “It’s something fun to see — it’s benign, but it’s a change. And anytime we see change in the skies it’s always kind of exciting.”
Cause For Chaos Or Celebration?
Here’s a look at some of the stories, beliefs, myths, and superstitions about lunar eclipses from around the world:
- Pay it forward: Tibetan Buddhists believe that the good (and bad) deeds you do during a lunar eclipse are multiplied tenfold.
- A time to forgive: According to South African myth, the Sun and Moon fight during an eclipse. It’s up to the people to come together and encourage the celestial bodies to resolve their feud.
- Coming changes: Many Native American tribes say lunar eclipses are a sign of a transformation to come here on Earth (based on their belief that the moon controls and regulates our planet).
- A sign of the apocalypse: One of the most widely shared sayings here in the U.S. about total lunar eclipses comes from the Bible. According to Joel 2:31: “The Sun will turn to darkness, and the Moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”
- Avoid eating? In India, people avoid cooking, eating, and drinking during lunar and solar eclipses. They believe food spoils faster in the absence of the Sun’s light, and may bring on indigestion.
- Relax, moms! In several cultures, expectant mothers are advised to stay indoors when the Moon turns dark for fear it may curse their unborn child. They should also rest from housework, since using a knife or other sharp object is believed to cause birthmarks.
- Make some noise! Incan civilizations believed that Blood Moons occurred when a mythological jaguar attacked and ate the Moon. To drive it away and stop its slaughter, the people would shake spears at it and make their dogs bark at the night sky. Today’s sky watchers still give a nod to this ritual by watching lunar eclipses with noisemakers in hand to “scare off” whatever is swallowing the Moon.
Whether you believe lunar eclipses are spooky or spectacular, you can’t deny they’re a fascinating sight to see. What’s more, you’ll be able to watch any lunar eclipse with the naked eye—no special glasses or filters are needed.
When is the next lunar eclipse?
The recent lunar eclipse was on 20th January 2019. It was a total lunar eclipse. Here is a schedule of upcoming lunar eclipses:
- 19, 2019: Total eclipse.Visible from North and South America, Europe and Africa.
- July 16, 2019:Partial eclipse. Visible from South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.
- 10, 2020: Penumbral eclipse.Visible from parts of North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.
- June 5, 2020: Penumbral eclipse.Visible from parts of South America, Europe, Africa, most of Asia and Australia.
- July 5, 2020: Penumbral eclipse.Visible from most of North America, South America, western Europe and Africa.
- 30, 2020: Penumbral eclipse.Visible from North America, South America, northern Europe, eastern Asia and Australia.
NASA keeps a list predicting lunar eclipses until 2100. They also keep data about past lunar eclipses. During the 21st century, Earth will experience a total of 228 lunar eclipses, according to the space agency.
Credit: NASA/JPL-via Kieth Burns