Prime Time eclipse for Saturday night

A total eclipse of the Moon will make prime time viewing for the whole of Britain on Saturday night, March 3rd, and experts say it could be the most spectacular for years.

Europe, Africa and the Eastern USA are ideally placed for the event when the Full Moon slowly moves completely into the dark shadow of the Earth. The eclipse will turn its brilliant white light into a magical reddish glow with the Moon shining solely with the sunlight that has been scattered through the Earth’s atmosphere and onto the lunar surface.

The appearance of the Moon at this time varies according to how much dust there is our own upper atmosphere. Following major volcanic eruptions, eclipses have been such a deep red that the Moon has almost become invisible.

But there has not been such an eruption in recent times and so astronomers are predicting that the Moon could have a bright orange glow this time. Ian Morison, of Jodrell Bank Observatory, Cheshire, said: “Following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1992, which released large amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, the eclipsed Moon was nearly invisible. As the Earth has not had a major eruption for some years we can expect an impressive sight!”

Robin Scagell, Vice President of the UK’s leading organisation for stargazers, the Society for Popular Astronomy, said: “This is one of the best lunar eclipses from Britain for years. If the clouds stay away, it will be fascinating to watch the Moon’s graceful movement through the shadow of the Earth and check its coppery glow.”

The Moon will actually be entering the normally invisible cone of the Earth’s shadow in space from right to left. But the Moon will appear to move from left to right in the sky as the Earth rotates and the Moon moves across the sky. It first enters a band called the penumbra just after 8.18pm but the dimming will then be very slight. If you were on the Moon, the Earth would appear to begin blotting out the Sun at this time.

The main eclipse begins just after 21.30UT when the Moon starts to enter the dark central region of the Earth’s shadow. By 22.45UT, the Moon will be completely covered and this total eclipse lasts until nearly two minutes to midnight. Totality lasts 1h 13m in all.

The Moon will then appear to glide slowly free of the central shadow and it will leave it completely just after 01.11UT on Sunday morning. It then drifts through the penumbra again, leaving that finally just before 02.24UT.

Key Times for eclipse:
Moon enters penumbra: 20h 18m
Moon enters umbra: 21h 30m
Totality begins: 22h 44m
Mid-eclipse: 23h 21m
Totality ends: 23h 58m
Moon leaves umbra: 01h 11m
Moon leaves penumbra: 02h 24m

For full details of the eclipse, including tips on how best to observe it and take photos, see the special page on the SPA website.

The photo, by Paul Sutherland, is of a total eclipse of the Moon over Tower Bridge, London, on January 9, 2001.

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