Early tomorrow morning, North and Central America and parts of northern Europe and Asia will see a total lunar eclipse in its entirety, a phenomenon astronomers say is not rare but can be staggeringly beautiful.
As sun, Earth and moon align, the moon can turn totally dark. More often though, sunlight refracted by the Earth's atmosphere shines coppery red or orange on its face. "Basically, it is being illuminated by sunsets from all over the Earth," said Dr. Jeffrey Owen Katz, observatory director at the Custer Institute in Southold.
At 1:33 a.m. on Long Island, a sliver of the Earth's shadow will appear on the full moon's left edge, growing minute by minute until total eclipse at 2:41 a.m. The moon will be at its darkest at 3:17 a.m. By 3:53, the total eclipse will be over, with the moon emerging from shadow by 5:01 a.m.
While the Earth's shadow will be thrown 843,000 miles, said Joe Rao, News 12 Long Island meteorologist and SPACE.com columnist, the moon is a mere 231,000 miles away. At that distance, the Earth's shadow is 5,500 miles across, ample to eclipse the 2,100-mile-diameter moon for 72 minutes.
The eclipse will coincide with the winter solstice for the first time in nearly 300 years, Katz said.
Dust from two recent volcanic eruptions is in the air but local viewing conditions should be perfect with little cloud cover, Rao said, and while he is due to give an early-evening talk Monday night on the eclipse at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, he intends to spend the rest of the night and early morning in his backyard.
"This will be my 15th total eclipse of the moon," he said. "I get excited every time one comes along."
For those who are less excited but still would like a sample, Rao recommends grabbing binoculars and heading outside 45 minutes before or after 3:17 a.m.
"There should be a little sliver of yellow moon still left, with the rest orange, like a Japanese lantern."
The next total lunar eclipse will be June 15, but astronomers say Tuesday's eclipse will offer New Yorkers the best show they can expect until 2014.
The public also can visit the Custer Institute to watch the eclipse from around 12:30 a.m. through 5 a.m. The institute's observatory is at 1115 Main Bayview Rd., Southold. For information ahead of a visit, go to custerobservatory.org or call 631-765-2626.