A Cosmic Alignment is Coming
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
At noon today Earth reaches the point of its orbit that causes the Sun to rise directly east, set directly west and be above our horizon half the day. Days will get shorter now, nights will get longer and temperatures will fall. Just a few days into our spring season, a spectacular astronomical event will take place, so pray for clear skies and plan to be outdoors to put yourself in alignment with the cosmos! On this special evening we will encounter an eclipse of the Moon.
Here are the circumstances that will cause the eclipse. Earth will reach the part of its orbit that coincides with the plane of the Moon's orbit. The Moon will reach its full phase, putting it in conjunction with Sun and Earth, on the far side of Earth. Thus, the Moon will be coasting along its orbit receiving sunlight that passes Earth to illuminate the full side we will be looking at, then, slowly, it will slip into Earth's shadow. The final ingredient for a cosmic-alignment experience is you. In order to enjoy the phenomenon you must be out of doors, under clear sky, looking at the Moon as it rises in the east. Yes, the eclipse will take place whether you are watching or not, but why miss the opportunity that the forces of nature have worked so hard to provide. If you do watch, you have a better chance to comprehend a host of cosmic relationships.
If you really wish to enjoy this event to the fullest, find a place out of town where you have excellent views both east and west, with relatively low horizons in both directions, and begin with sunset the evening before the eclipse. Glance at the Sun as it approaches the western horizon (do not damage your eye sight by prolonged observation of the Sun), then look east to see the nearly full moon majestically rising. Looking at one of these bodies, then the other, you will be aware of how nearly you are to the center, between the two great celestial orbs of our sky. Some Native Americans speak of this situation as the Moon and Sun "looking at each other." You might feel more like they are both looking at you. Now think about what will happen during the next 24 hours: the Moon will drift eastward in its orbit so that it will rise later the next evening and you will be within the alignment of Sun, Earth and Moon.
Don't forget to take binoculars along on the evening of the eclipse. If you wish to see the eclipse in all its glory, get out of town: find a quiet place, perhaps alongside a lake or stream. Watch the Sun coast over the western hills in resplendent colors, setting at about 7:20 p.m. MDT (the exact time depends upon the features on the horizon at your observing location). Pay close attention to pick up the disk of the Moon, already partly eclipsed, in the opposite direction. As the colors diminish in the west, watch for Earth's shadow in the east: if the sky is very clear you can notice a wave of darkness that creeps up the sky opposite where the Sun disappeared. This darkened region is the partial shadow of Earth, cast out into space, making the sky appear purplish to gray. The partially eclipsed Moon will be within that partial shadow and you can watch it go into the deeper shadow, the umbral shadow, cast by Earth. Using binoculars, you can actually watch the Moon move into the shadow by picking out particular craters and noticing them slowly sweep into shadow.
There are lots of things you can observe during the eclipse. Watch the color of the Moon change as it rises higher into the sky. Any astronomical body near the horizon is seen through a much deeper layer of air than when observed high in the sky, and this increased path of light through air scatters more of the blue light, allowing redder light to pass through. Thus, the Moon will appear redder when near the horizon. On this night, however, other color effects demand more attention. When the eclipse is nearly complete, pay heed to the color of the part of the Moon that is in eclipse: some light is bent by Earth's atmosphere down into the dark region to give the eclipsed Moon a reddish glow; if there is enough smoke, volcanic and other dust in our atmosphere, the eclipsed Moon will be darker than usual.
We are not the only creatures to respond to what is going on during an eclipse. You might attempt to notice changes in the sounds of life around you as the light of the full moon fades. Listen for Crickets, Katydids, frogs, owls and other birds, coyotes and other companions of the night. See if you can hear differences in the sounds around you as the eclipse comes and goes?
There are among us some who would add mystic dimensions into the alignment of Sun, Earth, people and Moon, but I suggest that the natural science elements are quite enough for both intellectual and emotional enjoyment. Consider what will be involved. The three cosmic bodies most essential for our existence will come into conjunction: Sun, which provides the energy field that nourishes all life on Earth; Earth, which carries us along in hostile space, cradled under its protective blanket of air within the wondrous collection of the most beautiful vistas in all the vast universe; Moon, which lights the night and provides atmospheric and oceanic tides that are far more significant than most people ever realize. It is the wholeness of the cosmic conjunction--the physical circumstances combined with the understanding we have gained through massive exploratory effort over all of human history--that can make the moment sing to our souls.
Yes, there will be plenty to enjoy on the evening of a lunar eclipse: things to see, things to hear, things to think about and understand, and things to feel. If we truly experience a cosmic alignment that puts us back in touch with phenomena of Earth and Sky, we can more fully appreciate what it means to be a conscious part of the universe, perhaps the most significant aspect of being human. It should be worth investment of a little time to spend at a carefully selected place to look around and let the moment of this eclipse transpose us into a larger context than we usually focus on.
This article was modified from the original to serve as an information source for all lunar eclipse events.