Thoughts on recent lunar eclipse


By Tom Burns - Stargazing



Did you see last week’s eclipse of the moon?

We had a rare, clear January night for the event. That fact alone sent many central Ohioans out into the bitter cold to see the moon pass into Earth’s shadow and turn a rusty orange.

The moon’s small size came as a surprise to some. They were expecting a “supermoon,” because the moon was at perigee, the closest point in its orbit around the sun. However, the moon, even at its closest, is only about half a degree of arc wide. The distance from horizon to horizon is, of course, 180 degrees. The moon’s diameter takes up only 1/360 of the distance from horizon to horizon.

Its rusty-orange color came as a surprise to many. After all, the NASA PR machine and its media co-conspirators were touting a “Blood Moon.” Don’t believe the hype. The “Blood Moon” is rarely the color of blood.

In fact, of the dozen or so lunar eclipses I have seen, this one was one of the darkest. Did you notice that the moon was not evenly colored? The bottom part approached ashen gray. The top part had a yellow fringe. The middle was a muted, rusted orange.

The color of any given eclipse arises from a variety of factors.

Earth is directly between the sun and moon during an eclipse. So one would imagine that the moon should disappear completely. It stays partially illuminated because some of the sun’s light is bent around the earth through the thin lens of Earth’s atmosphere. Only the red end of light’s spectrum gets through. The blue light is scattered by the atmosphere.

If the atmosphere around the globe is relatively clear, the moon will appear bright yellow-orange. If there’s a lot of dust and moisture, Luna will turn darker and more muted.

But there’s another factor to consider. The color also depends on where the moon passes through the shadow. The Earth’s circular shadow is wider than the moon at the moon’s distance. If the moon passes directly through the center of the shadow, then we’re in for a dark eclipse when the moon reaches the center of the shadow.

If the moon passes through the outer edge of the shadow, then the section of moon closest to the center of the shadow will be dark. However, the lunar section closest to the edge of the shadow will be lighter and brighter.

This time, there must have been a lot of junk in the atmosphere, which made for a generally dark eclipse. Also, the moon skirted the shadow, thus producing a nice variation in color across the moon’s face.

If you missed this one, don’t despair. Another total lunar eclipse will be visible from central Ohio on Nov. 8, 2021. We won’t see the entire eclipse, however. If you want to see the whole event, I’d recommend driving 1,000 miles or so west.

A lunar anniversary

Lunar eclipses last a long time. It took over an hour for Luna to pass slowly into the shadow and finally be engulfed by it.

As the moon slowly shrank toward totality, I had a long time to think about the moon’s importance to human aspiration and imagination.

We first imagined it a god, I thought. When we finally started seeing it as a place, we have dreamed of going there. At that moment, I suddenly remembered that we will soon celebrate an epic event in human history — the anniversary of our first soft landing on the moon.

I am not referring to July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on our celestial neighbor. That too, I suppose. I do not mean to demean the immense significance of that accomplishment almost 50 years ago.

However, three years before that inspiring moment, there was another accomplishment of equal significance. On Feb. 3, 1966, we celebrate a great leap forward both technologically and emotionally.

Many people think that an American craft first landed on the moon. Not so. The first spacecraft to have that honor was Russian. Its name was Luna 9, not Apollo 11.

The Russians had nothing close to the financial support or complex technology that led to America’s manned lunar landing three years later. Instead, they had to rely on a far more powerful gift — their ingenuity.

During the previous few years, both the Americans and Russians had solved the daunting navigational and technological problems that had to be overcome to get their rockets to the moon. They had flown by and, in the case of America’s Ranger spacecraft, even landed on the moon.

But the Rangers were designed to crash land. The control necessary for a soft landing on legs, which had to be developed for a manned mission, was as yet undeveloped.

Luna 9 was crude, but it worked. The spacecraft was put in a parking orbit around the moon. It cast off the navigational equipment it had needed to get to lunar orbit and then began a powered descent toward the surface.

A long, hinged arm sticking out from the bottom of the spacecraft detected when it was a few feet from the lunar surface.

At that moment, Luna 9 ejected a 220-pound ball of scientific instruments, which bounced, rolled, and skittered to a stop. The decent craft crashed into the moon, but the ball was built ruggedly enough to survive the impact.

The ball was bottom heavy, so it easily righted itself. Petal-like panels blossomed from its sides, anchoring the spacecraft, exposing a television camera, and deploying antennas.

Over the next four days, Luna 9 transmitted the first television images from the moon. The first of them showed a landscape filled with lonely desolation as the setting sun cast long, dark shadows on the rocky chaos.

Humans had their first glimpse from the moon. From the moon!

As the crashed fragments of mangled lunar spacecraft stand in mute testimony, the “drop, bounce, and roll” technique was unreliable. Lunas 1-8 had “failed to achieve their mission objective.” The Russians made up for a lack of advanced technological expertise with sheer, galling persistence.

Some will argue, I suppose, that the Russian achievement doesn’t count. Americans deserve the credit for the first human landing. We’re talking real people and not some robot without a soul, they might say.

If any machine ever had a soul, Luna 9 was it. It was inhabited by the dreams of the hundreds of Russian scientists who toiled to put it there. More importantly, it carried the spirits of the countless humans who, in the ages before it, had looked up at the moon with awe-struck silence and wondered what it would be like to look back.

My own reaction at the time was a mixture of shock and disappointment. We were in a race to the moon with those awful “Commies.” They seemed to beat us at every turn.

Age has mellowed my pseudo-patriotic ardor. When I read that the Chinese had achieved the first soft landing on the moon’s far side, I greeted the news with jubilation. Perhaps the next feet to tread on the moon will be Chinese. No matter. They will be human feet.

I realize now that I have a lot more in common with those Chinese and Soviet scientists and engineers than I do with the politicians who fashioned a callous political race out of a noble human endeavor.

Those scientists and technicians share with me that heartfelt desire to “break the surly bonds of Earth” and touch the face of the cosmos. I will never go to the moon. No matter. Buzz, Neil, and Luna 9 went in my stead.

In ages hence, Luna 9 will be remembered, or there is no justice on the Earth. As it spread its petals to drink in the harsh lunar sunlight, the human spirit opened up as well.

So check out the moon the next chance you get. You don’t need an eclipse to bask in its unearthly light. Binoculars show its craters as tiny dark spots. A small telescope reveals exquisite details in its craters, mountain ranges, and enormous lava plains.

Invisible to your sight is a small metallic flower, its petals unfurled, waiting for us to come again.

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By Tom Burns

Stargazing

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.