Sorry, North America. The longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century is set to happen Friday — but you won’t get to see it. Unless you find yourself in Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe or South America, you shouldn’t get too excited about the Blood Moon that will dominate the sky for just under two hours.
But before you decide to pack up and move to a place that’s graced with more astronomical wonders, take note that just three nights after the eclipse, Mars’ orbit will be closer to the earth than it has been in more than a decade — and that’s something you’ll be able to view from right here in the Bay Area.
“Which one would I rather watch? Both,” said Rick Elphic, a scientist at NASA Ames in Mountain View.
So what’s so great about this eclipse anyway?
“The moon will be passing very close through the center of the earth’s shadow” while in apogee, a point at which the moon is farthest from the earth, Elphic explains. The farther the moon is from the earth, and the closer it passes through the center of earth’s shadow, the longer we can view what’s called “totality,” when our shadow completely covers the moon.
For the enthusiasts in our neck of the planet, Foothill College astronomy emeritus chair Andrew Fraknoi suggests joining a Friday morning viewing party. Organizations such as Slooh will be live-streaming feeds from telescopes all over the world, so you can catch what is being called the “Full Buck Moon” at around 10 a.m. Pacific time.
While the moon will be as far as it gets, Mars will be posing for its super close up. And it’s not just some 103-minute show, as the eclipse is. It’s a celestial event you will be able to view “every night, for days and days,” Elphic said.
Monday night will be the closest and brightest Mars gets in this orbit — a mere 35.8 million miles — or about 12,300 trips from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Statue of Liberty.
That’s when the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland will be holding a viewing party to accommodate Mars enthusiasts, starting at 10:30 p.m. Monday and ending Tuesday at 2:30 a.m.
Miss it — and really, what’s your excuse? — and you’ll have to wait until Oct. 6, 2020 — a month before the next presidential election — for Mars’ next close approach. But that one will be 3 million miles farther away.
“Weeks from now, it’ll look pretty similar,” said Elphic.
Admiring the red planet with the naked eye will be memorable, but telescope users will not get the show they might have imagined: Details of the planet will be obscured by a global dust storm, Fraknoi said, calling it “a pain in the telescope.”
Luckily, we should be “ideally placed” for upcoming astronomical events.
The next total lunar eclipse visible in our sky will occur in January 2019, with those in the San Francisco Bay Area getting “first dibs” this time. Mark your calendars for the evening of Jan. 20, when a partial eclipse will start at 7:34 p.m. and a total eclipse hits right at 8:41 p.m.
Not only will that eclipse occur in early evening hours, making it more accessible, but it will be closer to the earth, making it easier to see.
So despair not, North America. New celestial events are always on the horizon. Early August features the annual summer spectacle known as the Perseid meteor showers, which peak Aug. 11 and 12. On that second night, Elphic is psyched to view the planet Venus in the Western sky, where the sun sets, sharing the sky with a crescent moon.
Take that, rest of the world.