12 December 2011

Watching Lunar Eclipse under Dark Skies

We had missed the June 15th total lunar eclipse this year due to cloud cover and during few days before the December 10th total lunar eclipse the skies were not at all promising. Few of us thought that it would be good idea to take a chance and observe the eclipse in a dark sky area away from the light polluted city skies. Even during our journey to the observing site we saw horizon covered with clouds and with our hopes dwindling we continued. As we reached our regular observing site the eastern skies had cleared which seemed to be too good to be true.
The first task was to find a clear horizon as the first contact of umbra was to happen at 6:15pm and the moon’s altitude at that time would be close to 6 degrees. We found the clear horizon much earlier and the full moon was shining gloriously.
 We started setting up the equipments and also started observing the moon waiting for umbral contact. As minutes passed from 6:15pm the shadow slowly started growing from the Oceanus Procellarum region and just over half an hour of start of umbral eclipse the shadow had reached near Copernicus crater which is close to 95km in diameter. 
The moon was a spectacular view towards 7pm in binoculars with Mare Imbrium, Mare Humorum, Mare Nubium all turning red.  Few minutes before totality began, the almost red moon with just little bright area left made moon to appear as a red planet with ice caps, reminding us of Mars.  We had a wonderful view of the totality though there were little clouds at the time of totality, it all cleared soon.
We now can tell with experience that if anyone wants to enjoy the total lunar eclipse fully, they should go to a dark sky area. The appearance of the red moon in the sky with all the stars in the  background is an amazing sight.
Planet Jupiter outshined everything in the sky, as the moon faded during totality, the bright -2.5magnitute Jupiter became the brightest object in the sky. The moon shines at a magnitude of -12 during full moon and only during eclipse that Jupiter or Venus can hope to outshine the  full moon and this time it was Jupiter’s turn.  We had a chance to spot many messier objects that are usually difficult to spot during full moon. The red giant aldebaran shining close to red moon made the region really special.  
We spent some time explaining the eclipse to the curious villagers and Madhava who had joined us for the trip was giving live commentary on radio explaining to the listeners about our observations.
We ate food during totality, something we always do to remove the superstition among people. As totality ended the moon started to brighten up and we continued observe the eclipse till the moon was totally out of umbra. As moon brightened we saw the faint stars disappear and slowly most of the stars disappeared as moon fully came out of umbra shadow.
It was a sad feeling after the eclipse thinking that we will have to wait till 2018 to enjoy such wonderful event of total lunar eclipse, but on looking back at the wonderful experience we had during eclipse, I think you all will agree that it’s worth the wait.

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