On January 31, millions of stargazers around the globe will witness what promises to be a spectacular total lunar eclipse. While the celestial event is always special, what makes Wednesday’s particularly noteworthy is that it coincides with both a blue moon and a supermoon. Hence the moniker “super blue blood moon.” According to NASA, the lunar trifecta is the first of its kind in 35 years and will not occur again until 2037.
For those in need of a little refresher, blue moon is the name given to the second full moon in a single calendar month. A supermoon, on the other hand, occurs when the moon reaches its closest distance to Earth in its orbit and therefore, appears a little bigger and brighter than usual. According to NASA, the satellite will be just 223,068 miles away from our planet (compared to the average distance of 238,855 miles), a few hours before the eclipse, on January 30.
Though the blue moon and supermoon are intriguing, the star of Wednesday’s show is the total lunar eclipse. As you are probably aware, the moon does not emit any light - it merely reflects the light from the sun. Therefore, when our planet gets in between the two, its shadow falls on the moon, resulting in what we refer to as a lunar eclipse.
The phenomenon does not occur every month because the plane of the moon’s orbit is slightly tilted in relation to that of Earth’s. Hence, the satellite is not always in perfect alignment with the Earth and sun, which in addition to a full moon, is necessary for a total eclipse to occur. Unlike solar eclipses, which can only be seen from specific places, lunar eclipses are visible from any place that is on Earth’s nightside when they occur. They also do not require special glasses to view.
According to experts, the January 31 event will be visible to North America, Alaska, and Hawaii residents before sunrise, while those in the Middle East, Asia, eastern Russia, Australia, and New Zealand will be able to observe it during moonrise. Unfortunately, much of South America, Africa, and Europe will miss out since it will be daytime when the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow.
Within the US, a majority of East Coast residents will only be able to observe a partial lunar eclipse that will occur just before dawn at about 6:48 am ET. The West Coast will be more fortunate. NASA’s Gordon Johnston says, “Weather permitting, the West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii will have a spectacular view of totality from start to finish.” However, those interested in viewing the eclipse will have to wake up early. For Honolulu residents, totality will begin at 2:51 am local time, while for those in Anchorage, it starts at 3:51 am. Californians will be able to see it at a slightly more palatable 4:51 a.m. PT, with the best viewing between 5 a.m. PT and 6 a.m. PT.
Sarah Noble, a program scientist at NASA headquarters, says since the moon’s orbit is well understood, the January 31 event has no scientific significance. However, the expert asserts, "Anything that keeps people interested in science and makes them realize science is important is a good thing." Johnston agrees, and urges those fortunate enough to be able to see the eclipse to “set their alarm early and go out and take a look.”
Resources: mashable.com,phys.org, vox.com