On Sunday, January 20, we’ll see the only total lunar eclipse of 2019—and the last one until 2021. Here’s what to look forward to.
The “Super Blood Wolf Moon” Total Lunar Eclipse
Yes, that’s really what this event is being called in the media (and yes, it is a mouthful). Let’s break the name down into bite-size pieces:
Total Lunar Eclipse: This is the most important part of the name because it tells you what exactly you’re looking at. A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is positioned exactly between the Sun and the Moon, casting a shadow onto the Moon for a period of time and turning it a dark reddish color. Unlike a total solar eclipse, a total lunar eclipse can be viewed without any special eye protection. This eclipse will be the last one visible from North America this year, but here’s a list of all upcoming 2019 eclipses, just in case you’re curious!
Blood: This is short for “Blood Moon,” which is the common name for a total lunar eclipse that has been gaining popularity in the media in recent years. It refers to the rusty-red color of the Moon when it’s in Earth’s shadow. Learn more about Blood Moons.
Super: But what makes this whole thing so super? Well, the “super” stands for Supermoon, which is the name for a full or new Moon that occurs at the same time that the Moon is closest to Earth in its orbit. At this point in its orbit, the Moon appears ever-so-slightly larger and brighter than it would normally, though the difference is negligible to the naked eye. Learn more about Supermoons.
Wolf: Thanks to the howling of wolves, January’s full Moon was traditionally called the Full Wolf Moon by some Native American tribes and early colonists.
Unless it’s cloudy, you will have a good chance of catching this eclipse because this one is visible everywhere in the Americas. Boston, L.A., on vacation in the Caribbean, hanging out in Rio—everyone in the Western Hemisphere gets to see this one.
This eclipse even has convenient timing. In the Eastern time zone, the partial eclipse begins at 10:33 P.M., so you don’t even have to set your alarm like for the last one, which unfolded at 5 A.M. In the Pacific time zone, it’s a dinnertime eclipse that starts at 7:33 P.M.
In the hour after the partial eclipse begins, the full Moon goes through a weird series of shapes that are often described as phases. But for most of this time the Moon does not resemble ordinary monthly lunar phases. No, these are strange looking. And they get stranger as they go along, so that the very weirdest might be the Moon’s configuration at around 11:30 EST, when only one little bright spot remains while the rest of the moon has turned orange, making the apparition resemble Mars with its polar cap.
Totality begins at 11:41 EST or 8:41 PST. And now the blackness that first bit into the Moon to produce its odd shapes is replaced by an eerie coppery glow. But this varies from eclipse to eclipse. Some lunar totalities are dark gray with a moon barely visible, and other times it’s almost a brick red. It depends on earthly atmospheric conditions, like whether there’s been recent volcanic eruptions. Actually, it’s the only time we can gaze at a celestial object to get a report card about ourselves.
Another feature—at least for those away from city lights—is that lunar totality restores thousands of faint stars to the winter sky, which the full Moon had washed out to invisibility before the eclipse begin.
Topping it all off, the eclipsed moon will hover in the highest up section of the zodiac. So instead of being possibly blocked by hills, trees or neighbors’ houses like the last lunar eclipse, this one is high overhead.
Lasting over an hour until 12:44 EST, the moon’s ruddy appearance remains more or less unvarying the whole while. Thankfully, this means that no one can be blamed for hitting the hay after observing the eclipse for, say, the first 20 minutes.
Lunar Eclipses vs. Solar Eclipses
With all these pluses and benefits, it may be necessary not to oversell the event. The phrase “total eclipse” is shared by both lunar and solar versions. But while a solar totality is a frenetic excursion into another dimension, with absolutely astounding short-lived marvels that make many people weep with rapture, such as pink flames shooting from the sun’s edge, a lunar totality is a lengthy phenomenon during which essentially nothing happens.
Okay, so we’ve established that unlike total solar total eclipses, this January 20th event may not be life-changing. But it’s still definitely worth observing. Lunar eclipses always seem to hold a special fascination for children.
If you have any, wake them up for it, and they’ll remember it their entire lives.