Sunday, December 11, 2011

Total Eclipse of the Moon

Lunar eclipse 11.12.11

I managed to watch about 20 minutes of a beautiful progressing total lunar eclipse early this morning until heavy cloud obliterated the view just before the shadow had almost entirely obscured the moon at about 3 am NZ time. It looked to me like a most exquisite pearl button - with delicate indescribable shifting colours - with a shiny edge glinting in the light, and the 3D effect was breathtaking. I was watching through binoculars although the spectacle was also very pretty with the naked eye.

My mother was a fan of cosmic phenomena, and she infected me with her passion throughout my long childhood of being dragged outside during the wee small hours to see the first Sputnik or a lunar eclipse or a pretty conjunction of heavenly bodies, and in her enthusiasm and by example, she managed to teach me a few things about chasing these elusive wonders:

(1) It's not easy but it's worth it

If you want to see astonishing magical things in the night-time sky you have to to sacrifice a bit - and get up when you'd rather be asleep in a warm bed, and stand out in the cold, and get tired, and get a cricked neck watching and waiting.

(2) You need to persevere

You need patience and stamina, maybe to wait for the clouds to clear or for the moon to rise up behind that hill or for that comet to become visible or before you catch sight of the blinking trail of that satellite. So often it is when almost everyone else has given up and gone off to bed that the floor show begins.

(3) You need luck but you also need to do your research

It helps to be looking in the right part of the sky and from the correct spot on the earth and at the right time of the night and without any obstacles such as bright city lights, your own porch light, the roof next door, a fog bank, or an inconvenient mountain range.

The internet is very helpful these days, and theoretically one is more likely to be able to hear about and see an aurora, for instance. (And if you don't catch it yourself at least you can see somebody else's photo!)

(4) Sometimes the 'experts' are wrong

This precept was very useful when Halley's Comet came by in 1986 and the general public were told when to watch for it. I was so excited and couldn't wait and went out looking every night much earlier and was rewarded with a much better view of it than many others who waited for the official optimum viewing, by which time it had become more fuzzy and less spectacular, and the judgement of many was that their whole effort and build-up had been a disappointment to them.

Also it pays not to believe it when you are told a meteor shower will not be particularly productive, or that the night is too cloudy to see it, because clouds have a habit of suddenly parting and allowing the sight of some dazzling spectacle you will never forget.

(5) Keep Alert and Pay Attention

You need to keep your eyes open. A cloud can drift away and reveal a blood-red fully eclipsed moon in all its glory, or a meteorite or a fireball can whizz by in a blink of an eye and the saddest thing you can hear in that situation is "Did you see THAT!?!" If you're going to stand outside in the cold you may as well make sure you're not wasting your time.

Be prepared to be thought mad and obsessed along with all the other driven people who have a goal and don't mind stepping outside conventional boundaries of behaviour to achieve it.

It will be worth it for the image you can hold in your mind for ever afterwards, and the knowledge that you made the effort, and you saw something rare and special for yourself, maybe in your own back yard.

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