- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

If you’re in the metropolitan region this evening, peer out the window for a spectacle witnessed once every blue moon — or in this case, a red one.

A total lunar eclipse will take place just after sunset tonight, the first since October 2004. The full moon will gradually pass through the Earth’s shadow, giving it the appearance of a burning hot coal.

“It’ll be kind of reddish … a dark pink, maybe even orange-ey,” said Andrew Seacord, a park ranger at the Rock Creek Park Planetarium in Northwest. “It all depends on how much dust is in the atmosphere when it happens.”

Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth is positioned exactly between the moon and the sun. The moon assumes a dark, reddish hue when the Earth blocks sunlight usually reflected by the moon.

If the moon passes through only part on the Earth’s umbra — or the darkest part of a shadow — a partial eclipse occurs. But if the entire moon passes through the umbral shadow, then a total eclipse occurs.

In layman’s terms, the full moon has to be positioned directly behind the Earth in relation to the sun to be shielded from direct sunlight, which is what causes the total eclipse.

The eclipse will reach totality — when the moon begins to pass through the darkest part of Earth’s shadow — at 5:44 p.m. EST, about 15 minutes before moonrise.

By 6:20 p.m., the eclipse will have entered its total phase, completing at 6:57 p.m., said Stephen P. Maran, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society.

“Since the moon is a lot smaller than the Earth, it takes a while for it to pass through Earth’s shadow,” Mr. Seacord said.

Mr. Maran, who authored “Astronomy for Dummies,” said the eclipse will already be in progress when the moon begins to rise, which will make viewing the eclipse’s pinnacle difficult for most city dwellers.

Additionally, he said, the moon’s rising will be almost simultaneous with the setting of the sun, making the sky even darker.

“Unless you’re up on a hill or skyscraper, or have access to a good telescope, you probably won’t see it rising,” Mr. Maran said. “But you should still be able to get a decent look the last 15 minutes before the [totality] ends. It’ll still be a good show.

“Plus you can watch a crescent moon evolve into a full moon, which is something you don’t ever see in one day,” he said.

The weather is not expected to be a hindrance. While forecasts call for partly cloudy skies today, the view of the eclipse shouldn’t be obstructed.

“It’ll be visible from pretty much wherever you can see the eastern horizon,” Mr. Seacord said. “But it’s the last one for a while on the [East Coast]. The next one won’t be until Feb. 21, 2008.”

The last total eclipse of the moon visible from North America was in October 2004. Another will occur Aug. 28, but it will not be visible to most of the eastern half of North America.

Mr. Seacord said he’ll be on duty tonight during the eclipse. Though the planetarium doesn’t have any scheduled related events, Mr. Seacord said it’ll likely be a topic of discussion throughout the evening.

The Richmond Astronomical Society will hold a skywatch on the front lawn of the Science Museum of Virginia, where observers will share their telescopes from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society will conduct a similar event at the Cahas Mountain Overlook, located at milepost 139 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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