SCOTTSBLUFF — For Panhandle residents willing to get up early on Jan. 31, they will have the opportunity to witness a unique celestial event involving our moon.
Early risers will see a supermoon, a blood moon, a blue moon and a total lunar eclipse all at the same time. While the “moons” happen regularly, their convergence on a single date is not common.
“That’s why they say it’s rare,” said Tom Robinson, astronomy instructor at Western Nebraska Community College. “It has to be absolutely perfect and it’s just a window.”
The total lunar eclipse will be visible in central and eastern Asia, Indonesia, New Zealand and most of Australia, across the Pacific Ocean and in western North America because the Pacific Ocean will be turned toward the moon at the time, according to Space.com.
“A lunar eclipse is when the earth passes between the sun and the moon and the earth’s shadow is cast on the moon,” he said.
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Though the penumbral eclipse begins at 3:51 a.m., viewers will see the moon turning red at the partial phase at 4:48 a.m. As the eclipse proceeds along its path in the sky, the moon will lose its brightness. When the light going around the earth’s atmosphere is bent, it creates the reddish hue that's called a blood moon.
At maximum eclipse, the moon will be at the center of the earth’s shadow. The moon will be visible in the west-northwest sky and will be closest to the horizon just after 7 a.m. Anyone with an unobstructed view will have a clear view of the lunar eclipse. Due to the time of day, it will not be possible to see the moon set.
Robinson noted that if you pay attention you will see a “big bite” out of the moon. That’s the earth’s shadow.
“You’re used to seeing a crescent moon, but this is a distinct chunk,” he said.
A supermoon is a full or new moon that occurs when the moon is closest to the earth in its elliptic orbit, which accounts for it appearing bigger and brighter than a regular full moon. Supermoons are common enough, and we just had two — on Dec. 3 and Jan. 1 — but the next one will be something special.
The ideal view of the supermoon will be when the moon is close to the horizon, just before sunrise.
“There’s an illusion you get near the horizon,” he said. “You have a lot of things to compare it to like trees and buildings, which also make it appear bigger.”
The name “blue moon” has nothing to do with its color. A blue moon occurs when a second full moon appears during a specific division of a year. This can be seasonal — a third of four full moons in a season — or by calendar — a second full moon within the same month. The latter will be what occurs on Jan. 31.
A lunar cycle is 29.53 days. Every two to three years, there is an extra full moon.
Robinson said lunar eclipses can be seen more often, but all three events at once is rare.
“The supermoon is worth just seeing it rise,” he said. “Get up early and go have a look.”
Unlike the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, you do not need special glasses to view a total lunar eclipse. If you can’t get outside to see this rare event, or if it’s cloudy where you are at, you can visit the Virtual Telescope Project and watch it at https://www.virtualtelescope.eu/2017/10/15/31-jan-2018-total-lunar-eclipse-live-event-online.