COLUMBIA — If the weather cooperates, sky watchers can expect to see a prime-time total lunar eclipse Wednesday evening, the last until December 2010.
The eclipse, when a full moon passes in the Earth’s shadow, falls during hours when people are likely to watch.
NASA predicts the partial eclipse will begin around 7:45 p.m. and end just after 11 p.m. The best time to view, however, is during the total eclipse from 9:01 p.m. to 9:51 p.m.
Laws Observatory at MU will be open from 7 p.m. to about 10:30 p.m., said Val Germann, president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association. Telescopes will set up at the observatory, but Germann said the naked eye or binoculars are the best way to view the eclipse. The group will have binoculars available for the public.
An eclipse happens when the sun, Earth and a full moon are aligned. The Earth blocks the sun from totally illuminating the moon, causing it to take on red and orange tones.
While lunar eclipses are of little scientific impact, they can be beautiful to watch. Because there have been no recent volcanic eruptions to darken the atmosphere, the eclipse will likely take on vivid red and orange hues. They are also completely safe to watch, unlike solar eclipses.
“It’s a fairly deep eclipse, so the moon should turn a definite red,” Germann said. “The moon looks almost like Chinese lantern, like a bulb. It’s very unusual, the way it’s illuminated.”
Germann added that people should be able to make out more detail than usual across the surface of the moon and that changes will be continual during the 50 minutes of totality.
To add to the show, it so happens that the moon is passing through the constellation Leo along with Saturn, Germann said. That means right above the moon, the brightest star in the Leo constellation, Regulus, will be visible, while Saturn will be just below the moon. Saturn will appear as a bright starlike object, but the astronomical association will have a telescope trained on it as well.
Ralph Dumas, another member of the association, said lunar eclipses are interesting because you can visualize what is happening.
“It is neat to watch,” he said. “You can see the shadow of the Earth passing over the moon. The really great thing is the totality. Since light is getting bent through our atmosphere and coming all the way around the Earth, the moon just turns very red. At the moment of totality it gets real 3-D. The moon usually looks like a flat cut-out, but you can actually see it curving towards you.”
The Wednesday evening forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a 30 percent chance of snow, with an increasing chance of snow after midnight, so viewing the eclipse may not be possible.
Butch Dye of the National Weather Service in St. Louis said on Tuesday afternoon that it was nearly impossible to predict whether the sky will be completely overcast. As the night wears on, he said, the chance for total cloud cover would increase as a storm system moves in. The weather service predicts that those farther east will have a better chance of viewing the eclipse.
There’s little doubt in the forecast about one thing: it will be cold – around 14 degrees – especially when standing on top of the observatory.
If there is broken cloud cover, the moon will still be neat to look at, Germann said.
“If it’s partly cloudy, it can be kind of dramatic, with clouds passing in front of the moon,” he said. “It’s worth looking at unless it’s just completely overcast.”
Dumas said the last time there was an eclipse when he was running the observatory, Missouri and most of the Midwest were completely clouded over.
“We finally found a telescopic view of it from the Canary Islands and we all crowded around the screen until their site crashed,” he said.