Astronomical odds

Triple play | For first time since 1378, total lunar eclipse of full moon to fall on winter solstice
2010-12-20T00:00:00Z Astronomical oddsBy EVE BYRON Independent Record Helena Independent Record
December 20, 2010 12:00 am  • 

So how cool is this?

For the first time in 632 years, the full moon will experience a total lunar eclipse on the winter solstice, the equivalent of a cosmic triple play.

According to NASA’s website, while total lunar eclipses in the northern winter are fairly common — three in the past 10 years — the last time a lunar eclipse of a full moon on the solstice was in 1378.

Ashley Oliverio, a member of the Helena Astronomical Society, said the viewing opportunities will be fabulous tonight, especially if the skies are clear.

“If you turn to the south and look up, it will be right there, high in the sky. You don’t have to look on the horizon or anything,” Oliverio said. “No telescopes are needed; it’s a democratic astronomical event in that it’s open to everyone. No matter what their resources, people just need a pair of eyeballs to see this.”

She said the partial eclipse will begin about 10:50 p.m. Dec. 20, but people probably won’t see what looks like a bite out of the moon until around 11:30 p.m. The total eclipse begins at 12:41 a.m. Dec. 21, and lasts until 1:53 a.m.

“So we have about an hour for the total eclipse,” Oliverio said. “Then the bite will decrease in size. The whole thing will be quite a spectacle.”

A lunar eclipse only happens when the earth, sun and moon are directly aligned and the moon passes through the earth’s shadow.

NASA scientist Tony Phillips writes on the agency’s website that during the eclipse, the moon probably will have a reddish hue because small particles of dust in the air will reflect light from the sun. It’s the same principle that turns sunsets and sunrises red.

“For 72 minutes of eerie totality, an amber light will play across the snows of North America, throwing landscapes into an unusual state of ruddy shadow,” Phillips stated on the NASA Science News website. “Thanks to our atmosphere bending the sunlight around us, it scatters the light and refracts the signature red and copper coloration we associate with lunar eclipse.”

Oliverio said that she’s also seen lunar eclipses that are gray, brown, bright orange and blue.

“It depends on what’s going on in the atmosphere,” she said. “That’s been tied in recent years to volcanic eruptions.”

As a bonus, she added, people should remember to look north occasionally and they might be greeted with another surprise.

“They could be treated to an aurora after the full moon dims,” Oliverio said. “With the solar activity picking up, you might be able to see some green lights on the northern horizon.”

Reporter Eve Byron:

447-4076 or

Copyright 2016 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. Stanley1948
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    Stanley1948 - December 24, 2010 5:18 pm

    Maybe you're being nitpicky, but I had the same reaction: It's only a DOUBLE-play!
  2. cowpieslinger
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    cowpieslinger - December 23, 2010 11:49 pm
    Democratic? What a dumb thing to write in a piece about the moon. Is sombody feeling left out or something?
  3. kcasey
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    kcasey - December 20, 2010 1:39 pm
    Oops, I think you transposed those numbers Eve.

    Several online sources report that the last time this happened was 372 years ago on Dec 21, 1638.

  4. Mandy1
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    Mandy1 - December 20, 2010 11:50 am
    Im excited for this, hopefully its clear out, if so, im settin my alarm clock!
  5. justme59601
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    justme59601 - December 20, 2010 10:51 am
    maybe the last out is the potential for northern lights? I don't know, just a guess.
  6. jlarsen
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    jlarsen - December 20, 2010 9:29 am
    I know this will sound nitpicky, but... Isn't it really just a "double-play"? Lunar eclipses always fall on full moons so really this is just a temporal alignment of two events: a total lunar eclipse, and the winter solstice (in some timezones).

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