Video Eclipse of the Moon

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Lunar Eclipses for Beginners 10:54 PG

(c) Copyright 2007 by Fred Espenak

Introduction

What is an eclipse of the Moon? What causes eclipses and why? How often do eclipses happen and when is the next eclipse of the Moon? You'll learn the answers to these questions and more in MrEclipse's primer on lunar eclipses.
The Moon is a cold, rocky body about 2,160 miles (3,476 km) in diameter. It has no light of its own but shines by sunlight reflected from its surface. The Moon orbits Earth about once every 29 and a half days. As it circles our planet, the changing position of the Moon with respect to the Sun causes our natural satellite to cycle through a series of phases:
      • New Moon > New Crescent > First Quarter > Waxing Gibbous> Full Moon >
        Waning Gibbous > Last Quarter > Old Crescent > New Moon (again)

Phases of the Moon.
The phase known as New Moon can not actually be seen because the illuminated side of the Moon is then pointed away from Earth. The rest of the phases are familiar to all of us as the Moon cycles through them month after month. Did you realize that the word month is derived from the Moon's 29.5 day period?
To many of us, Full Moon is the phase of love and romance. When the Moon is Full, it rises at sunset and is visible all night long. At the end of the night, the Full Moon sets just as the Sun rises. None of the Moon's other phases have this unique characteristic. It happens because the Moon is directly opposite the Sun in the sky when the Moon is Full. Full Moon also has special significance with regard to eclipses.

Geometry of the Sun, Earth and Moon During an Eclipse of the Moon
Earth's two shadows are the penumbra and the umbra.
(Sizes and distances not to scale)

Types of Lunar Eclipses

An eclipse of the Moon (or lunar eclipse) can only occur at Full Moon, and only if the Moon passes through some portion of Earth's shadow. That shadow is actually composed of two cone-shaped components, one nested inside the other. The outer or penumbral shadow is a zone where the Earth blocks part but not all of the Sun's rays from reaching the Moon. In contrast, the inner or umbral shadow is a region where the Earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the Moon.
Astronomers recognize three basic types of lunar eclipses:

      1. Penumbral Lunar Eclipse

      • The Moon passes through Earth's penumbral shadow.
      • These events are of only academic interest because they are subtle and hard to observe.

      2. Partial Lunar Eclipse

      • A portion of the Moon passes through Earth's umbral shadow.
      • These events are easy to see, even with the unaided eye.

      3. Total Lunar Eclipse

      • The entire Moon passes through Earth's umbral shadow.
      • These events are quite striking due to the Moon's vibrant red color during the total phase (totality).
Now you might be wondering "If the Moon orbits Earth every 29.5 days and lunar eclipses only occur at Full Moon, then why don't we have an eclipse once a month during Full Moon?". I'm glad you asked! You see, the Moon's orbit around Earth is actually tipped about 5 degrees to Earth's orbit around the Sun. This means that the Moon spends most of the time either above or below the plane of Earth's orbit. And the plane of Earth's orbit around the Sun is important because Earth's shadows lie exactly in the same plane. During Full Moon, our natural satellite usually passes above or below Earth's shadows and misses them entirely. No eclipse takes place. But two to four times each year, the Moon passes through some portion of the Earth's penumbral or umbral shadows and one of the above three types of eclipses occurs.
When an eclipse of the Moon takes place, everyone on the night side of Earth can see it. About 35% of all eclipses are of the penumbral type which are very difficult to detect, even with a telescope. Another 30% are partial eclipses which are easy to see with the unaided eye. The final 35% or so are total eclipses, and these are quite extrordinary events to behold.
What is the difference between a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse? A solar eclipse is an eclipse of the Sun. It happens when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun. This is only possible when the Moon is in the New Moon phase. For more information, see Solar Eclipses for Beginners.


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