Winter Solstice Eclipse

Nearly 3 AM. I’ve emerged from the house every half hour or so, the storm door hinges proclaiming my activities to the neighborhood like some enormous cuckoo clock touting the passage of time.

I stand on my back deck and gaze up at the Moon. Gauzy clouds obscure lunar features but the Earth’s shadow has become more imposing as the morning matures. I’m awed by the tranquil splendor. Briefly. It’s damn frosty outside.

For my astronomically-challenged friends, Dr. Tony Phillips of NASA Science News sums up the anticipated events:

The luster will be a bit "off" on Dec. 21st, the first day of northern winter, when the full Moon passes almost dead-center through Earth's shadow. For 72 minutes of eerie totality, an amber light will play across the snows of North America, throwing landscapes into an unusual state of ruddy shadow.

Why red?

A quick trip to the Moon provides the answer: Imagine yourself standing on a dusty lunar plain looking up at the sky. Overhead hangs Earth, nightside down, completely hiding the sun behind it. The eclipse is underway. You might expect Earth seen in this way to be utterly dark, but it's not. The rim of the planet is on fire! As you scan your eye around Earth's circumference, you're seeing every sunrise and every sunset in the world, all of them, all at once. This incredible light beams into the heart of Earth's shadow, filling it with a coppery glow and transforming the Moon into a great red orb.

3:06 AM and a particularly thick cloud obscures the Moon. I’ve always had rotten luck with regard to astronomical events. I can recall only two successful viewings: Comet Halley in 1986 and the Perseids in 1993.

3:17 AM, eclipse peak. The Moon, still demurely shrouded, has turned a quixotic shade of burnt umber. The moment was worth staying awake for.

If you missed the event, you can view a slide show here.

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