Look to the West for Super-Sized, Colorful Moon at Dawn, Saturday

By Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle   

If the skies are clear or even only partly cloudy, it will be worth your while to set your alarm for dawn on Saturday morning, Dec. 10, to catch the last total eclipse of the full Moon until 2014.

The eclipse will be total from 6:05 to 6:57 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. The partial stage of the eclipse begins at 4:45 a.m.

The colors of the eclipse will be deepest just before dawn. Face west to see the red Moon sinking into the horizon as the sun rises behind your back.

It’s a rare way to begin the day and an astronomical activity anyone can participate in — no telescope required — and the eclipse can be viewed from just about anywhere.

“The only thing you have to worry about is the weather,” said Onalaska high school science teacher and science center director, Johnny Garcia.

Garcia isn’t sure yet whether the weather will cooperate enough for Onalaska’s Herold Oberservatory to be open on Saturday morning.

“We’ve had a lot of fog in the area,” Garcia said. “Check our calendar of events to see if we’ll have the science center open.”

To view the observatory calendar, visit the Onalaska school district website for more information, http://onysd.wednet.edu/ and click on the link to Herold Observatory in right column of the page.

A Colorful View

“When the Moon first goes into totality, it’s really a nice moment. The Moon is ‘eaten away’ by the earth’s shadow and goes dark, and then you see a coppery, reddish glow,” Garcia said.

When the Moon is totally eclipsed, it glows eerily orange, red, or dark bloody brown. Although the Moon is completely inside Earth’s shadow at that time, it’s still dimly lit by sunlight that skims the edge of Earth and is refracted into Earth’s shadow by the atmosphere.

What you’re seeing on the Moon’s face is light from all the world’s sunsets and sunrises at the time that you’re looking. How bright or dark an eclipsed Moon appears depends on the amount of cloudiness along Earth’s sunrise-sunset rim and, especially, the amount of dust high in the upper air.

For this eclipse the Moon barely skims inside the southern edge of Earth’s umbra, making the Moon’s southern rim appear brighter than the rest — creating a lovely 3-D effect and drama for photographers.

Not only will the Moon be beautifully red, it will also be inflated by the Moon illusion.  For reasons not fully understood by astronomers or psychologists, low-hanging Moons look unnaturally large when they beam through trees, buildings and other foreground objects, although, in fact, a low Moon is no wider than any other Moon.

Next Eclipses

The next eclipse of the Moon will be only partial, happening before and during dawn on June 4, 2012. It will be visible from most of North America except the Northeast.

The next total lunar eclipse doesn’t come until the night of April 14-15, 2014. But then the Moon will be positioned high in a dark sky for viewers all across the Americas.

Onalaska’s Herold Observatory

The Herold Observatory houses a 24-inch telescope where you can view galaxies, nebula, star clusters, planets, and the moon.

Onalaska high school science teacher Johnny Garcia directs the activities of the Onalaska Science Center throughout the year.

“We have the biggest telescope in western Washington that’s open to the public,” said Garcia. “We plan activities throughout the year and open up the observatory on a regular basis, weather permitting.”

“We’ve been waiting on the funding to come through to finish the upgrades on the telescope,” he added. “We hope to be finished by January.”

The telescope was specifically engineered to be low to the ground to make it easier for school age astronomers, as well as college students and adults, to see the wonders of the night sky.  All viewing is from a standard chair on rollers. The chair is rolled out of the way when wheelchair use is desired.

“The winter skies have some of the nicest skies for viewing,” said Garcia.

Although in the winter, Garcia said, the cold and fog can make clear viewing nights uncomfortable or impossible to see. The new upgrades, however, will enable viewers to see live projected images from the telescope while standing in the warmth and comfort of the science center.

“When we have events at the observatory, we’ll have people from as far as Olympia and Longview,” he said, “sometimes up to 100 people on really good nights.”

Visit the Onalaska school district website for more information, http://onysd.wednet.edu/ (see link to Herold Observatory in right column) or call the observatory hotline at 330-1745.

A calendar of events is available on the observatory website.