Sky-watchers are crossing their fingers, setting their alarms, and hoping for clear skies early Wednesday morning, when a super moon, a blood moon, a lunar eclipse and a blue moon will happen all at once.
And if the weather cooperates, Southern Oregon should be a good place to view the events.
“For the (continental) U.S., the viewing will be best in the West,” said Gordon Johnston, program executive and lunar blogger at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement from NASA. “Set your alarm early and go out and take a look.”
The phenomenon most people are familiar with is the blue moon, which occurs when two full moons appear during the same month.
Then there's the supermoon, which occurs when the moon’s perigee — that is, its closest approach to Earth in a single orbit — coincides with a full moon.
A lunar eclipse is when the moon passes into the Earth’s shadow.
And all of that will happen Wednesday.
This combination of events is exceedingly rare, said Robert Black, astronomy teacher and director of the North Medford High School Planetarium and Observatory.
The last time the United States was treated to this space show was in 1866, he said.
Lunar eclipses, unlike solar eclipses, are visible from anywhere on Earth, so the trick is to have clear skies and a good viewing area, says Black.
“According to my calculations, at 3:48 a.m. the moon will begin entering the earth’s shadow. At 4:51 there will be totality, or the maximum of the eclipse, when the moon is at the deepest part of the shadow of the Earth. The sun, the moon, and the Earth will be perfectly aligned,” Black said.
Which brings us to the blood moon. Lucky viewers should have a terrific view of the moon becoming dark as it moves out of the sun's light and into the shadow of the Earth. Only the light reflected off Earth will be visible on the moon's surface, producing a ruddy red-brown color on the moon during totality.
“It’s been said that it looks like a million sunsets reflected on the moon at once,” said Black. “Conversely, if you were standing on the moon, it would look like the Earth was surrounded in a ring of fire.”
Another interesting aspect of the event is that the moon and sun appear to reverse their typical paths, in this case with the moon going higher than the sun, Black said.
There’s practical science involved, as well. Because the moon cools so quickly during the eclipse, scientists will be using thermal imagery to study the moon and its components, including the loose rocks and soil on the surface. This, for example, can help determine effective landing sites for future moon missions.
Because the lunar event is so early in the day, Oregon Skywatchers and other groups say most of their members are going to be moon-gazing from their homes. For optimal viewing, watchers should be positioned so they can view the southwest sky.
Which brings up perhaps the biggest variable: Weather. The end of January is typically fairly cloudy in Southern Oregon, and the odds are against a clear sky. In fact, Black is estimating only a 20 percent chance of clear skies. But, he says, “I’m still telling my students to set their alarms.”
After all, if you have a one-in-five chance of seeing a once-in-a-lifetime event, it’s worth losing a bit of sleep, isn’t it?
If the skies do clear enough to see the moon, you may also want to consider gaining a bit of elevation to get above the possibility of valley fog.
If it is overcast Wednesday morning, you will have an alternative: NASA will provide a simulcast of the lunar event. Beginning at 2:30 a.m., a live feed of the moon will be offered on NASA TV and NASA.gov/live. You can also follow at on Twitter @NASAMoon.
— Jefferson Reeder is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.