Lunar eclipse is expected tonight

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- If you're willing to forego a little sleep tonight, you'll get a chance to see an unusual celestial show.

For a few hours tonight, the full moon will go dark.

Well, not completely dark. But it will be a dim, rusty red as it passes through the Earth's shadow. The show starts around midnight and continues into the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday.

"It's been three years since we've had one here," Jim Friese, Wetherbee Planetarium guide and an amateur astronomer since 1995. "That one was early in the evening."

Allison Young, program coordinator for Thronateeska Heritage Center where the planetarium is located at 110 W. Roosevelt Ave., noted that the next lunar eclipse visible from the Southwest Georgia area will be in June 2011.

"I think this is the first one we've had in three years that can be seen all across the continental U.S.," she said.

"Just before midnight it'll begin," Friese said. "You'll start seeing a dark shadow moving across it (the moon). It'll be kind of weird because it won't be a crescent moon like you're used to seeing. It'll be a fuzzy shadow, not a sharp-edged shadow. And it'll move across there till it gets in totality about 1 o'clock.

"It'll almost be a perfect line up of the sun and Earth and moon in that order."

Lunar eclipses occur when the earth moves directly between the sun and moon, which means they can only occur during a full moon. Solar eclipses occur when the moon moves directly between the Earth and sun.

While solar eclipses require special precautions to avoid eye injury, lunar eclipses are safe to watch with the naked eye. The moon gets extremely dim as it passes into the Earth's shadow, but never disappears from view.

"It (the moon) passes through two shadow zones," Friese said. "If it weren't for the light going through the Earth's atmosphere, you wouldn't see anything. It'd go black. The Earth's atmosphere turns it red. It's color filtration. Red is the only color that passes through that thickest part of the Earth's atmosphere."

Winter, which starts about 6:38 p.m. Tuesday, is usually a good time of the year for skywatching at night in Southwest Georgia with less heat and moisture in the atmosphere, which can hamper summer viewing.

Weather conditions won't be perfect tonight, but they should be good for viewing. The National Weather Service is forecasting a low of 36 degrees tonight with mostly clear skies.

"Winter skies are much more stable around here," Friese said. "You don't get as much shimmer in the atmosphere as you would during the summer. But that really wouldn't affect the observation of the moon. It's so big and so bright, that wouldn't be much of a hindrance."

One more thing to expect: When the moon grows dim, the rest of the sky will be more visible. The brightness of the full moon on the human eye can block out fainter stars in the night sky.

"Once the moon goes dark into the umbra, the night sky is going to light up," Friese said. "You won't have any competition. It's going to be a beautiful night once that happens."