- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003


Stargazers across North America will watch the full moon dim into a dark, ruddy orb Saturday night as it drifts through Earth’s shadow in the latest celestial event this year to pull eyes skyward.

Astronomers who scrutinized Mars this past summer during its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years were more recently awed by red and green aurora displays as far south as Florida as a result of solar flares.

And now more heavenly happenings are on the way.

Saturday’s lunar eclipse will be followed by the Leonid meteor shower, a total solar eclipse over the Southern Hemisphere — and a chance for more auroras if the sun stays active. Another eruption Tuesday on the sun may rank among the most intense solar events ever recorded. But the explosion will be aimed away from Earth, meaning it would have little effect here.

Still, the otherworldly event that the public has the best chance of seeing is Saturday’s total eclipse of the moon. At its peak, the moon will hang eerily in the night sky like a dark, reddish-orange coal.

Unlike unpredictable comets and meteors, the moon is a reliable show, said Stephen Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society.

“Nowadays people who’ve grown up in the city or suburbs have never seen the Milky Way, but even in the most light-polluted place I’ve ever been — downtown Los Angeles — you can see the moon,” he said.

If the weather cooperates, people in the Eastern United States will witness the entire eclipse; it will already be under way when the moon rises at sunset in the West.

The eclipse reaches totality at 8:06 p.m. EST. That stage — when the moon, Earth and sun are lined up precisely and the moon passes through the darkest part of Earth’s shadow — lasts just 24 minutes.

The eclipse can also be seen in South America, Europe and Africa. The last eclipse of the moon visible from North America was on May 15, but much of the United States was cloudy.

Unlike eclipses of the sun, which can damage viewers’ unprotected eyes, lunar eclipses are safe to watch with the naked eye or binoculars.

Total lunar eclipses come in many colors, from dark brown and red to bright orange, yellow and even gray, depending on how much dust and clouds are in the Earth’s atmosphere at that time, Mr. Maran said.

If clouds blot out Saturday’s event, disappointed viewers won’t have to wait long before the annual Leonid meteor shower arrives.

For North American viewers, the shooting star display peaks Nov. 19 with 100 or so meteors per hour, some of them fireballs, said Stuart Levy of the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society in central Illinois.

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