Posted by: Jerry Garrett | December 6, 2010

Full Moon, Total Eclipse & Meteors 12/20/10?

The phases of a total lunar eclipse. (Wunderground.com)

The full moon on the evening of December 20, 2010, will be blotted out completely by the first total lunar eclipse in nearly three years – the first time since 1638 a lunar eclipse has coincided with the Winter Solstice. With a little luck, those in the prime viewing areas might even catch a glimpse of a falling star or two, from the leftovers of the Geminid meteor shower.

Wouldn’t that be something to see?

Though it will be possible for millions of people to witness the eclipse, only the hardiest night owls are likely to see the whole thing.

The stages of visibility for the total lunar eclipse 12/20/10 (WikiCommons)

The eclipse will be fully visible in North America and Central America, with parts of it able to be seen in Europe, South America and the Far East.

Let’s set the scene with the sequence of events the evening of Dec. 20. As an example, I will use Pacific Standard Time, here in the Los Angeles area.

Sunset/Moonrise: The moon will rise about 4:30 p.m. PST that evening, about 15 minutes before the sun sets. Times will vary, of course, in your part of the world; there are numerous websites which will give you area-specific times. A good place to start, I believe, is the Old Farmers Almanac’s moon pages. Also check the Lunar Times website.

Eclipse stages (WikiCommons)

Moonphase: At its rise on Dec. 20, the moon won’t technically be quite “full”. It will be just a percentage point of two less than full; but, the moon is moving and changing all the time. So, about 15 minutes after midnight that night, the moon will advance to “full”.

Eclipse Start: The eclipse should begin about four and a half hours after the moon rises (or, for example, about 9:30 in the Pacific time zone).

Eclipse Duration: The eclipse lasts about five hours and 38 minutes, from beginning to end.

How a lunar eclipse happens. (Space.com)

Total Eclipse: The moon will be completely covered up – it will become an eerie brownish orange – by the Earth’s shadow (the Sun being directly behind the Earth at that time) for approximately an hour and 13 minutes. That “totality” is achieved for the first time about two hours and 10 minutes into the eclipse process. So, using the Pacific time zone example again, the start of the total eclipse is at 11:40 p.m. It lasts until 12:53 a.m. on Dec. 21. (Remember, the moon achieves its official “fullness” in the middle of all this, at about 12:15 a.m.)

Final Penumbral: The last shadows of the eclipse will fade at 3:06 a.m. (New Yorkers: This is an all-nighter for you! The total eclipse doesn’t happen until nearly 3 a.m.)

The spectacular Geminids (Astronomy-News.net)

Note to astrologers: The moon is in Taurus for this momentous event.

Okay, now, how about the possibility of meteors too? I’m not going to over-sell this: But the possibility is there for a couple of shooting stars, as well. As mentioned in another column of mine, the Geminids meteor shower started in early December and was scheduled to reach its peak Dec. 13-14, with 120-140 meteors visible per hour (most visible that night after the half moon sets) in the southwestern sky (near the constellations of Gemini and Orion).

The Geminids lose their “star power” after that, for two reasons: 1) The asteriod or comet to which they are attached passes; 2. The moon gets fuller and brighter, making the sky too bright to see many of the meteorites.

But the Geminids are what astronomers call a “long tail event” because meteorites continue to fall for several nights in the asteroid’s wake.

The full moon would normally be too bright to let the falling stars be seen, but since the moon will be blotted out late Dec. 20 and early Dec. 21, the skies may – because of this rare celestial event – be dark enough again for a few hours to permit stargazers a real night to remember!

If you can’t get to a good viewing spot in person, or the weather in your area does not cooperate, NASA says it will feature live webcams of the celestial fireworks. Go to http://www.nasa.gov for details.

P.S. For good measure a solar “event” 12/15 is likely to mean a very active aurora borealis around this time. So, folks as far south as the northern Great Lakes may see some additional celestial wonders.

Jerry Garrett

December 6, 2010

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Responses

  1. Great info!

  2. This was a awesome blog site full of what I needed here in Central Oregon.
    The cloudy sky is doing it veil dance and hope to expereince the total be fore bed this morning. It is so bright out as the moon reflects on the snow covering everything.
    Thanks for your writings.

    • Thank you! Around Sun River? I hope so. That’s so beautiful. A favorite part of the country for me. Wish it wasn’t so cloudy & rainy here in California tonight. We’re missing it!


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