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Total eclipse of the moon

Stargazers in for a treat tonight as the moon, Earth and the sun become aligned

Eclipses have posed a sense of mystery and wonder since the very first humans that roamed Earth. They were also considered a bad omen, a sign of gloom and doom in ancient cultures, such as the Maya’s.

An eclipse of the moon is a rare phenomenon that occurs when the moon, Earth and the sun are aligned, with the Earth in between the two; this is referred to as a syzygy. A total lunar eclipse can therefore only occur when the moon is full.

So, if there is a full moon once every month, why is a total lunar eclipse so rare?

“The reason why we do not have a total lunar eclipse every full moon is because the moon ‘wobbles’ in its orbit around Earth, and is usually above or below the plane in which it would form syzygy,” explains Josef Borg, president of the Malta Astronomical Society and a PhD student at the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy.

Borg says that our ancestors had a strong connection to astronomy and the night skies, probably because their night skies were not polluted by stray light, “unlike our light polluted skies today”. And he hopes to re-instil that connection with the night skies tonight as the longest lunar eclipse in the 21st century takes place.

“An eclipse totality will last as long as the moon remains in the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, called the umbra,” continues Borg.

“The eclipse totality tonight will last 103 minutes, which means the moon will remain completely shadowed in Earth’s umbra for almost two hours.”

The phenomenon will be visible across all of Europe and Africa and most of Asia. Malta will be able to witness the full, partial and total phases of the eclipse.

“The eclipse is happening at an ideal time for the Maltese islands,” points out Borg. “As the moon rises above the horizon, the partial phase of the eclipse will be ongoing and the moon will reach total phase at 9.30pm, when the moon would have cleared the horizon well. This means that it will be visible from several locations.

“Additionally, since it will last for 103 minutes, the eclipse will be visible for a very long time. Compared to other eclipses in the past, which have been visible from Malta in the early morning hours, this eclipse will likely be more widely viewed as well.”

Another fascinating thing about this phenomenon is that the moon turns into a bewitching deep blood red colour.

“As the moon completely enters the Earth’s shadow, the only light received by the moon is that sunlight which manages to pass through Earth’s atmosphere, getting bent enough to fall on the moon’s surface. Only red light reaches the moon in this way, making the moon appear red and giving rise to the term ‘blood moon’.”

Contrary to a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse is best viewed with the naked eye.

“Unlike solar eclipses, it poses no eye health hazards. The sun will be below the horizon during this eclipse and the moon only reflects sunlight.

“The moon will, in fact, get notably dimmer as totality is reached, as it enters the Earth’s shadow and thus less light reaches it.”

While gazing at the moon, one can also look out for Mars, which currently happens to be on the closest approach to Earth and will be at 57 million kilometres away from our planet during the eclipse.

“This means that as Earth and Mars get closer, the pale red star becomes significantly brighter and the planet is easier to see through telescopes,” says Borg, adding that Mars is still visible to the naked eye as a red point of light close to the moon.

He dismisses reports that the Red Planet will appear as big as the moon as a hoax.

Watching the phenomenon

An event is being co-organised by the Astronomical Society of Malta, the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy, the Department of Physics and S-Cubed from the University of Malta, Esplora and Heritage Malta at Fort St Elmo, Valletta tonight.

During the event, attendees can look through telescopes set up on site by the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy and the Astronomical Society of Malta for a close-up look of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as the moon. There will also be talks and activities for children organised by Esplora. A YouTube Live feed of the event, the first of its kind for the Maltese islands, has also been set up with the support of Vodafone.

The event is endorsedby the Valletta 2018 Foundation.

For the live YouTube link,visit https://youtu.be/oxYlbXX4CR4 .

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