Look for a dramatic night sky over Arizona this Sunday as the earth's shadow helps create the spectacle of a "super blood wolf moon."
This total lunar eclipse — the only one this year and the last one visible in North America until 2021 — will be perfectly timed for late evening viewing and is unlikely to be interrupted by clouds.
Lunar eclipses are scientific magic. You thought silly human beings had power? Watch in awe as the familiar bright moon disappears, transforming into a dull, crimson spot. Skywatchers across North and South America can check this one out.
Even if your Sunday evening won't include a cup of hot cocoa and standing outside patiently with fellow nerds to watch a slow-moving shadow, you'll probably notice the moon is red if you're outdoors between about 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Here's what's going on:
The first full moon of January is called a wolf moon. This one is also a supermoon, appearing slightly larger and brighter to observers than normal because its orbit brings it closer to earth this month. The moon's oval orbit means it's 252,000 miles from our planet at the far end, and 226,000 miles at its closest approach, or roughly within a Toyota Corolla's average lifespan.
When the moon is closer, its circle appears about 14 percent larger in the sky — which means you're probably lying if you claim you can see that it's larger. The moon illusion, in which the moon seems larger when viewed with more nearby objects on the ground, plays a role in perceived moon size. However, a supermoon is 30 percent brighter than the Clark Kent moon at the far end of the orbit, so its intense illumination isn't your imagination. (Bright as the supermoon will be, it's safe to stare at the moon even during a lunar eclipse. Eclipse glasses are used to view solar eclipses, which occur at times when the moon is between the sun and the earth.)
The curtain opens on the real show at 7:36 p.m. Arizona time, as JPL/NASA's site shows. The moon, which will be in the eastern sky, has now entered the outer part of the earth's shadow and will stay there for 57 minutes. NASA says that part might not be noticeable to everyone.
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At 9:33 p.m., the moon will start to move into the umbra, the darkest part of the earth's shadow. The full moon will shrink as the shadow gobbles it up. Then the moon will reflect a cottony, red-orange light, finally becoming the super blood wolf moon. That light comes from the sun, of course, but as it passes through the earth's atmosphere it's stripped of its blue wavelengths, leaving a sunset red to shine on the moon.
At 9:41 p.m., the moon will be fully inside the umbra, reaching its most-eclipsed point at 10:12 p.m. The darkness begins to recede from the moon's surface at 10:43 p.m., leaving the umbra completely by 10:50 p.m.
Some scattered clouds are likely on Sunday night, meteorologists at the National Weather Service told Phoenix New Times this week. They predict — with the caveat that their predictions may not be perfect — that the sky will probably be mostly clear, allowing for good viewing.
So don't forget to look up on Sunday night at about 10 p.m. to catch the lunacy of this hyper-adjectival, astronomical event.