WASHINGTON, February 1, 2018: Blue moon, blood moon. Moon lovers have encountered those two terms before. But early Wednesday morning, U.S. lunar astronomy fans – particularly those on the West Coast – got a chance to see both phenomena in one spectacular package. For those on the East Coast who missed it, we got online and snapped a few live, streaming video screen captures during Wednesday’s highly rare “super blue blood moon” lunar eclipse.
Our snapshots were obtained via live streaming video feeds taken primarily from NASA’s cameras located at the Armstrong flight Research Center in Edwards, California and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, both of which offered superior images compared to other available locales.
What’s the deal with the “super blue blood moon” terminology? On one level in our opinion, it’s probably a bit of astronomical hype, a bit like the Weather Channel’s recent, nutty insistence on giving winter snowstorms personal names as has long been the custom with Atlantic area hurricanes.
But this term is also descriptive, although the word order is probably changeable. Aside from serving as the label for a popular craft beer, the term “blue moon” goes way back. It simply refers to the fairly rare astronomical occurrence of a second full moon within the same calendar month.
Since a “blue moon” only happens on fairly rare occasions, it’s the origin of the still popular cliché “once in a blue moon.” In other words, the cliché refers to something that just doesn’t happen very often, just like a blue moon.
“Blood moon” is another popular term that simply refers to a total lunar eclipse, an event succinctly described as follows:
“A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth into its umbra (shadow). This can occur only when the sun, Earth and moon are aligned (in ‘syzygy’) exactly or very closely so, with the Earth in the middle. Hence, a lunar eclipse can occur only the night of a full moon. The type and length of an eclipse depend upon the Moon’s location relative to its orbital nodes.
“A total lunar eclipse has the direct sunlight completely blocked by the earth’s shadow. The only light seen is refracted through the earth’s shadow. This light looks red for the same reason that the sunset looks red, due to Rayleigh scattering of the more blue light. Because of its reddish color, a total lunar eclipse is sometimes called a blood moon.”
Okay, we’ve got “blue moon” and “blood moon,” a popular nickname for a total lunar eclipse. So where does the “super” come from?
NASA says a “super” moon occurs “when the Moon is closer to Earth in its orbit – known as perigee – and about 14 percent brighter than usual.” So there you have it: a “super blue blood moon,” something a New York Times headline writer cleverly dubbed “an astronomical hat trick.”
Unfortunately, DC residents pretty much didn’t get to see that lunar hat trick Wednesday morning. For the most part, the moon was too low in the horizon for us to see it, given our cityscape and the interference of trees in our site line. Instead, the residents America’s West Coast got to see a better show, which is why our series of photos was taken from the viewpoint of West Coast U.S. government telescopes.
For the record, NASA tells us that the “penumbral” eclipse began at 5:51 a.m. ET, attaining totality (full eclipse) at 7:51 ET. Due to the 3-hour difference in time zones, Pacific Coast times (PT) were three hours earlier.
BTW, on the front end of an evolving lunar eclipse, “Penumbral” refers to the time the full eclipse [“umbral” eclipse] begins to evolve, as well as to the time when the umbral eclipse begins gradually to fade away.
Now that we’ve got the popular science out of the way, enjoy our Wednesday super blue blood moon snapshots below. Once in a blue moon, we might do this again.
Here’s a final tip: Lunar eclipse fans in the Southern Hemisphere will have another chance to witness a total lunar eclipse on July 27, 2018. But if you, like us, missed out on Wednesday’s lunar event, not to worry. Residents throughout the U.S. will have another lunar eclipse opportunity a bit less than a year from now, on January 21, 2019. During this event, the full lunar eclipse will actually be fully visible throughout the entirety of North and South America, save for remote Hawaii and the most far-flung of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Bonus: This upcoming lunar eclipse will also feature a supersized moon.
But it won’t be a blue moon.
See you then.