Once in a lunar eclipse

Rare clear night gives Juneau skygazers a chance to watch Earth's shadow envelop moon

Posted: Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It was not just another lunar eclipse in Juneau. For one thing, you could actually see it.

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Without a cloud in the sky and against 60-40 odds, Tuesday morning's total lunar eclipse was visible for those who took the first chance in Juneau since January 2001 to see the Earth's shadow slide across the moon.

Orbits allow for two or three lunar eclipses every year, and each is visible from at least half of the planet. In Juneau, though, cloud cover makes such an event much less frequent.

Twelve novice sky watchers joined Marie Drake Planetarium volunteer Steve Koesis at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center for a slow and awesome show as the Earth cast its shadow 250,000 miles onto the moon.

The shadow is 6,000 miles in circumference at that distance, Koesis said.

"It's right on time," he said.

The Earth's shadow started chewing away at the moon at 12:51 a.m., turning it into a dark, slightly orange orb. Orange is the color left after sunlight passes through Earth's blue atmosphere.

Brent Fischer and his daughter Alyssa came prepared, with a 4-inch telescope, to watch as the moon moved through the penumbra into the umbra - in other words, partial shadow coverage into the fully eclipsed phase.

As far as Juneau astronomy goes, Fischer said he rarely gets the chance to use the big telescope, equal to a 1,000 mm photo lens, for its intended purpose. More often it's used for alternate viewing.

"I normally see more sheep than stars," he said.

Optics were not required to view the four-hour eclipse, but viewers lined up to view and snap photos of the moon through Fischer's telescope anyway. Others swapped past stories about past astronomical adventures as the moon disappeared.

Shortly after 1 a.m., a burst of aurora borealis stole people's attention with vertical green shafts of solar-powered particles dancing off Mount McGinnis. The small crowd whistled.

Everyone there wondered where the rest of town was.

"I called a bunch of people and told them, but none were as excited as I was," Steve Wilde said.

With the next storm front expected from the south, the National Weather Service predicted a 60 percent chance of clouds for Monday night into Tuesday morning.

"It came a little slower than expected," Tracey Ross, Weather Service meteorologist, said. Winds from the east slowed the approach, she said.

The eclipse was a first for Misty Pitt, who brought pajama-clad kids along for the event.

"I had no idea what to expect," she said.

Koesis said the next eclipse will happen in February, the third in a year's time. The obvious question of whether the event will be visible mid-winter in Juneau simply drew a laugh.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.

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