Boulder County Skywatchers Thirsting for Super Blood Wolf Moon
If you go
What: Coal Creek Canyon Sky Watchers meeting during lunar eclipse
When: 7 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Coal Creek Canyon Improvement Association Community Hall, 31528 Colo. 72
Cost: Suggested $5 donation
More info: sky-watchers.co
A second event
What: Lunar eclipse observation
When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday
Where: Outdoors at Fiske Planetarium, University of Colorado Boulder
More info: colorado.edu
A “super blood wolf moon” is drawing near, and no, it’s not the latest steamy tome from the fevered imagination of novelist Anne Rice.
If the current weather forecast of partly cloudy skies holds for Sunday night, a full lunar eclipse is poised to grace Colorado’s eastern skies, its timing convenient for most people to enjoy its splendor and not miss their regular bed time.
The January full moon, absent a coinciding eclipse, is traditionally known as “the wolf moon.” According to Boulder-area astronomy author Jeff Kanipe, wolf moon is “a Native American name that goes back to when they supposedly heard the howling of hungry wolves lamenting the midwinter lack of food.”
Add the rusty-to-red hue the moon takes on as the Earth’s shadow gradually encompasses the entirety of the lunar surface, and the result is a “blood wolf moon.” Layer on the fact that this is occurring when the moon is at perigee — the closest point of its orbit around Earth — and you have the “super blood wolf moon.”
The Sunday spectacular is the only full lunar eclipse that will take place this year.
“The alignment is such that the moon has to be opposite the sun in the sky, so that the sun’s light will pass over the Earth and cast this wide shadow over the entire moon,” said Kanipe.
NASA’s SpacePlace website explains that during a “blood moon,” the only light that reaches the moon’s surface is from the edges of the Earth’s atmosphere. The air molecules from Earth’s atmosphere scatter out most of the blue light, and the remaining light reflects onto the moon’s surface with a red glow.
Key moments in Sunday’s super blood wolf moon
7:36 p.m. — Moon enters penumbra stage
8:33 p.m. — Moon enters umbra stage
9:41 p.m. — Total eclipse begins
10:12 p.m. — Moon deepest in shadow
10:43 p.m. — Total eclipse ends
11:50 p.m. — Moon leaves umbra
12:48 a.m. — Monday Moon leaves penumbra
The event, Kanipe said, unfolds in stages. As the penumbral phase begins at 7:36 p.m. MST, observers will see only a faint dimming of the moon. At 8:33 p.m., the umbra — the heart of the Earth’s shadow — begins its transit, first enveloping the left side of the lunar disc and gradually swallowing it whole. The event can be enhanced with telescopes or even binoculars, but is thoroughly enjoyable with the naked eye.
“I’ve seen in my lifetime a dozen or more total lunar eclipses, and a dozen or more partials, but I go back to the time I first saw a lunar eclipse and didn’t know I was looking at a lunar eclipse,” said Kanipe, who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, and appreciated being able to comfortably go outside to observe the night skies 12 months a year.
“I looked up and saw the moon rising in the east and the bottom part of it looked like someone had taken a bite out of it,” he recalled. I knew a full moon couldn’t rise as a partial moon. And every time I go back and think about that, it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.”
A total lunar eclipse occurs only during a full moon, when the moon passes directly through the Earth’s shadow.
Sunday night’s total lunar eclipse will be visible across all of North America and South America — depending on absence of cloud cover — and partially visible in Europe and Africa on Sunday night into the early hours of Monday morning.
According to Accuweather , it will be the first total lunar eclipse visible in its entirety across the United States since Dec. 21, 2010.
Kanipe threw some shade, however, on the “super” aspect of the event’s billing.
“During the eclipse the moon will appear to be about 7 percent wider than usual, so it qualifies as a ‘supermoon,’” he noted in an email.
“Sorry, but I don’t know why this aspect gets people excited, as it’s not easily noticeable. But hey, who am I to question? People get excited about meteor showers, too, but they usually don’t perform as advertised.”
The most recent total lunar eclipse took place Jan. 31, 2018, but its totality occurred around moonset, Kanipe said, so the moon would have been very low in the west around 5:30 a.m.
Prior to that, a total eclipse also occurred Sept. 27, 2015. On that occasion, however, totality occurred just after moonrise, so it was low in the east just after sunset.
On Sunday, the moon will be about 55 degrees above the southeast horizon as totality, lasting from 9:41 p.m. to 10:43 p.m., ensues.
‘If it’s cloudy, don’t come’
Coal Creek Canyon resident Barbara David is “very jazzed” about the hoped-for Sunday night spectacular. She is a member of the Coal Creek Canyon Sky Watchers , as well as the wife of space journalist Leonard David, whose next book, scheduled for a May release, is “Moon Rush: The New Space Race.”
Her group’s January meeting had been set for Saturday, but they bumped it to Sunday, so that when they’re done with the evening’s scheduled speaker, those in attendance can step outside and turn their telescopes on the eastern sky.
“Of course we know the weather is unpredictable, but if it’s clear for part of it, that’s exciting,” Barbara David said. She recalled that for an early evening “supermoon” full lunar eclipse Sept. 27, 2015, about 50 sky watchers showed up to share in the experience. No program is being offered in the planetarium itself.
Unlike the Aug. 21, 2017 full solar eclipse that captivated much of the country, she said, “You don’t have to get caught in traffic” to enjoy it.
Also, light pollution is not as big a factor in viewing a lunar spectacle as it is for most other astronomical events.
“It kind of doesn’t matter,” Barbara David said. “But you’d like to not have bright lights shining from your neighbor’s, or anywhere else. But people could go to a little bit darker place, or the dark side of their house” to fully appreciate. “Everyone” interested in joining her sky watchers group Sunday is welcome to do so, she said.
Lunar enthusiasts emphasize that the eclipse is available to anyone inclined to look to the skies. But for those who prefer to share such event others, another opportunity to do so will be offered at the University of Colorado. John Keller, a professor in the CU astrophysics department and director of Fiske Planetarium, said telescopes will be set up outside that facility from 9 to 11 p.m., for enhanced viewing.
Keller pointed out that while the term “blood moon” has historically been used in folklore to describe the reddish color of rising full moon during autumn, it has served more recently as a cultural meme linking the term to a series of four consecutive full lunar eclipses that are uninterrupted by any partial lunar eclipses, also known as a lunar tetrad.
Because Sunday night’s is only the third consecutive full lunar eclipse, and the next eclipse later this year — July 16 — will be only partial, this sequence is not a lunar tetrad.
Regardless, lunar enthusiasts are welcome to share in the experience Sunday at CU.
“We’ll have the lobby open so that people can use the bathrooms, but we’re not planning to do a theater show. We’d rather do the real deal” outside, Keller said.
“So if it’s cloudy, people shouldn’t come.”
Whatever Sunday’s weather, there will be other opportunities. The next full lunar eclipse will occur May 26, 2021.
Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, email@example.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan