Darkness and Light Lunar Eclipse Coincides with Winter Solstice -BYLN-

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Darkness and Light Lunar Eclipse Coincides with Winter Solstice -BYLN-


Some heavenly holiday happenings are coming our way, so drop the shopping and take heed.

Not one, but two astronomical events will take place in one calendar day, Tuesday, Dec. 21. How cool is that?

Pretty cool, according to astronomy buffs. Although the juxtaposition of the two is, scientifically speaking, coincidental, there will be much to-do about these all-in-one-day events.

The winter solstice, celebrated the world over as the turning point in winter when the days begin to grow longer ever so slightly, will occur at 5:38 p.m. Tuesday.

Not to be one-upped by the sun, however, the moon will also get into the act this year. In the wee hours of winter solstice morn, the moon will do its disappearing act, known as a total lunar eclipse.

The two phenomena had very different meanings before scientific understanding of the events. The winter solstice was a time of celebration and hope, renewal and rebirth. In stark contrast, the total eclipse was a source of great fear and superstition.

Let's take a look at each to understand the historical, scientific and modern interpretations of the two events.

The lunar eclipse will occur first on Tuesday, just around midnight. During a lunar eclipse, the moon slips into the earth's shadow, or penumbra. To the ancients, the disappearance of a full moon was confounding, puzzling, worrisome and downright scary.

In many cultures, a total lunar eclipse was an "omen, (an) astrological portent, and a the outcome of diabolical magic," wrote Richard Carrier in "Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire."

In our scientifically informed times, we now know that there is nothing diabolical, magical or portentous about a total eclipse. The phenomenon occurs frequently and most of us modern folks think it's pretty awesome.

"An eclipse is an unforgettable sight," said Jim Griffin of the Kane County Astronomical Society.

You can see for yourself, starting at 11:55 p.m. today. Bundle up, step out and look moonward at midnight. As you stand out there in the cold, stomping

your feet to keep warm, take note of a shadow forming on the moon. See how it's curved? By golly, you've just discovered for yourself that the world is indeed round and not flat.

If you wait and watch a little longer, you'll see the moon slowly slide farther into the shadow and by 12:30 a.m. or so it will begin to enter the inner shadow, or umbra. It will be totally eclipsed by the earth's shadow by 1:41 a.m.

"It's a great spectacle," said KCAS astronomer Jack Kramer.

Part of the spectacle is the color morph of the moon. Depending on the degree of pollution in the atmosphere, the lunar eclipse may appear grayish, or it can emanate an eerie red, bright orange or yellow. The deeper the moon is in the umbra, the more intense the color. …

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