Lunar Eclipse

Total lunar eclipse at 4 a.m.? Oh, yes! And many of my neighbors joined me for the event, coffee in hand. Thank you to all for making it a fun pre-dawn event.

It was thrilling to watch Earth’s ruddy shadow creep over the silver surface of the Moon. When the eclipse reached totality at 5:17 a.m., we turned the telescope to Mars. The Red Planet is a small target right now, but growing larger every night as it approaches opposition on December 8. In moments of steady seeing we could discern a little detail.

At that point I knew I had some enthusiastic observers with me, so we next tried a more challenging target. Orion was fairly high in the south, and the Orion Nebula (also called Messier 42, or M42) was just barely a naked-eye object. Just barely was all I needed to center the telescope on M42. At the eyepiece with 45x magnification, we could clearly see four tightly grouped stars of the Trapezium Cluster. With averted vision and a little practice, the nebula itself popped into view, surrounding the cluster. This ghostly cloud is a stellar nursery, where new stars (including the infant Trapezium stars) are forming right now. Our own Sun was born in a nebula much like M42, 4.5 billion years ago.

But alas, astronomy can be cruel and capricious. Clouds rolled in from the west before the Moon could emerge from Earth’s shadow. One of my very determined neighbors stayed at the eyepiece to the end, watching the shadowed Moon as long as she could until it vanished in the clouds.

And yet the sky offered us something else in return for taking away the end of the eclipse. As the sky grew blue, red Mars continued to shine above the clouds, a lovely sight until it, too, vanished with the rising of the Sun.

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