The moon goes dark for two hours this weekend

MANA – If people are willing to stay up late this Saturday night, they’ll be in for quite a celestial treat.

A total lunar eclipse will take over the skies starting at about 3 a.m. and, weather permitting, will be visible on all parts of Kaua’i.

But if folks can’t stay up that late, they can get up early Sunday morning and still catch part of the phenomenon, since scientists say this eclipse will be the longest-lasting total eclipse for quite a while.

Try the longest for at least the next 1,000 years.

The eclipse will start in earnest at 3:02 a.m. Sunday morning and will persist until washed out by the rising sun at about 5 a.m. That’s nearly two hours of eclipse viewing time, which is much more than usual.

Solar eclipses average only in the minutes and are only visible across a small area on the planet.

By contrast lunar eclipses, which are caused when the Earth gets in between the sun and a full moon, thus blocking most of the sun’s light from hitting the moon, are visible to half the world. They also occur much more frequently than solar eclipses.

The last lunar eclipse visible in Hawai’i occurred in January but rain and clouds impeded the viewing of the phenomenon.

Why will this one be so long?

“Because the moon is passing directly across the Earth’s shadow, rather than just a glancing blow,” said Bob Valencia, president of the Kaua’i Education Association for Science and Astronomy (KEASA).

When the moon gets blocked completely by the Earth like it will on Sunday morning, it darkens dramatically. But the celestial body doesn’t go black like in a solar eclipse.

Some indirect sunlight does manage to get past the Earth during a total lunar eclipse, but as it does so it goes through the Earth’s atmosphere, illuminating the moon’s surface with an orange or reddish color.

Why the red color? Only the longer wavelengths of red sunlight can get past the Earth’s atmosphere and hit the moon’s surface. All the blue wavelengths are absorbed when they hit the air of the Earth.

“If the clouds clear, it should be a pretty nice view,” Valencia says.

The public can watch Sunday morning’s total lunar eclipse from the KEASA Observatory in Mana.

Here is a time table of the lunar eclipse:

* 1:25 a.m. The first shading, where the moon moves into the penumbra, or outer shadow of the Earth. This may take a little nibble out of the moon, Valencia says.

* 1:57 a.m. the partial eclipse begins, or what is called “first contact.” Moon will noticeably darken.

* 3:02 a.m. Total eclipse begins. The moon will be seen completely within the inner shadow of the Earth.

* 4:49 a.m. Total eclipse ends.

In term of viewing the eclipse, the best part of the island will be on the West Side, due to minimal cloud cover there. On the Windward side of Kaua’i, there will be some clouds and brief night time showers, a spokesperson for the National Weather Service said Wednesday.

Of course, the optimal place place to see the eclipse would be in Australia or New Zealand, where the eclipse will last over seven hours, said Valencia.

As a bonus attraction, there will also be a comet in the constellation of Camelopardalis, just beyond the North Star.

Scientists from the Bishop Musuem Planetarium predict the comet, called LINEAR, will be visible with the naked eye.

Assistant managing editor Brandon Sprague can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 226) or bsprague@pulitzer.net

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