Total Lunar Eclipse and the Winter Solstice Coincide on December 21

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–December 20, 2010. With frigid temperatures already blanketing much of the United States, the arrival of the winter solstice on December 21 may not be an occasion many people feel like celebrating. But a dazzling total lunar eclipse to start the day might just raise a few chilled spirits.

Early in the morning on December 21 a total lunar eclipse will be visible to sky watchers across North America (for observers in western states the eclipse actually begins late in the evening of December 20), Greenland and Iceland. Viewers in Western Europe will be able to see the beginning stages of the eclipse before moonset, and in western Asia the later stages of the eclipse will be visible after moonrise.

From beginning to end, the eclipse will last about three hours and twenty-eight minutes. For observers on the east coast of the U.S. the eclipse lasts from 1:33am EST through 5:01 a.m. EST. Viewers on the west coast will be able to tune in a bit earlier. For them the eclipse begins at 10:33 p.m. PST on December 20 and lasts until 2:01am PST on Dec. 21. Totality, the time when Earth’s shadow completely covers the moon, will last a lengthy 72 minutes.

While it is merely a coincidence that the eclipse falls on the same date as this year’s winter solstice, for eclipse watchers this means that the moon will appear very high in the night sky, as the solstice marks the time when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth lines up directly between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun’s rays and casting a shadow on the moon. As the moon moves deeper and deeper into the Earth’s shadow, the moon changes color before your very eyes, turning from gray to an orange or deep shade of red.

The moon takes on this new color because indirect sunlight is still able to pass through Earth’s atmosphere and cast a glow on the moon. Our atmosphere filters out most of the blue colored light, leaving the red and orange hues that we see during a lunar eclipse. Extra particles in the atmosphere, from say a recent volcanic eruption, will cause the moon to appear a darker shade of red.

Unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to view without any special glasses or equipment. All you need is you own two eyes. So take this opportunity to stay up late and watch this stunning celestial phenomenon high in the night sky. It will be the last chance for sky watchers in the continental U.S. to see a total lunar eclipse until April 15, 2014.

NASA has planned various ways to help the public enjoy the total lunar eclipse on the night of Dec. 20 to 21.

Astronomers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will host a pair of live web chats to answer questions and help make the rare celestial experience one to remember. Marshall Center astronomer Rob Suggs will hold the first chat from 3 – 4 p.m. EST on Dec. 20 and discuss the best ways to view the eclipse. From 12 a.m. – 5 a.m., Marshall researcher Mitzi Adams will answer questions as the eclipse passes across the continental United States. A live video feed of the eclipse will be available on the chat site at:

http://www.nasa.gov/connect/chat/lunar_eclipse.html

 For observers on the East Coast, the eclipse will last from 1:33 – 5:01 a.m. EST. The eclipse happens when the moon passes through the shadow of Earth, and the moon’s appearance changes from bright orange to blood red to dark brown and perhaps gray. To learn about the science behind eclipses, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/eclipse

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., has set up a lunar eclipse Flickr group for those who want to share or view photos of the eclipsed moon. NASA will choose one photographer to have his or her work featured as official JPL wallpaper on their website. To learn more, visit:

http://www.flickr.com/groups/imthere/

JPL also is hosting the “I’m There: Lunar Eclipse” text campaign to connect people who are watching the eclipse in the same area and to provide them with tips on viewing the phenomenon. To learn more, visit:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/imthere/map.php

For more information on all NASA activities regarding the lunar eclipse, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/watchtheskies

Source: nasa.gov