Cold eclipse

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The total lunar eclipse March 3 was a test. I'm sure of it. The question was, "How much do you love astronomy?" Or, maybe I could rephrase it to, "What are you willing to endure to observe a minor astronomical event?"

For amateur astronomers, lunar eclipses usually don't garner the attention of meteor showers, bright comets, or planetary lineups, and they pale in comparison with that "other" type of eclipse. Still, if your location is one where a lunar eclipse is visible, go observe it.

You don't have to take any precautions, and you don't need any equipment. Just plant yourself in a chair (even that is optional), and watch.

Here in the upper-Midwest, this eclipse didn't promise much. The Moon would rise at sunset already halfway through totality. Well, half an eclipse is better than none, I guess. However, Milwaukee in early March is not known for its clear skies.

All day Saturday I kept one eye toward the sky and the other on Internet weather sites. To describe the day as "mostly cloudy" is to pay it a compliment. Deep-sky observers and imagers know this kind of day well. I've described it as a "Well, maybe ... if ..." day. It's the kind of day that promises a nice night only to those observers who have driven several hundred miles to a dark-site star party. While most attendees are watching videos, surfing the Internet, or sleeping, the dedicated amateur is "shooting sucker holes" — imaging or observing for short periods through small breaks in an otherwise cloudy sky. That was eclipse day in Milwaukee.

Nevertheless, my wife and I — each armed with binoculars — headed down to a park on the Lake Michigan waterfront. From there, we had an unobstructed view of the eastern horizon. We parked in an area facing east, but I worried that some widely spaced trees might block the Moon's first appearance. So, I emerged from our car to reconnoiter a better observing spot. I should have considered North Africa. A frigid blast of Arctic air struck me like a freight train. I braced myself against a tree not quite wide enough to shield me from the wind.

I love observing, but seldom have I had to grit my teeth to endure the weather. Here, you observe in the conditions you have, not the conditions you desire.

Was it worth it? Well, we saw none of totality. The Moon did not peek out from the clouds until 15 minutes past the end of totality, and then for only 30 seconds. After another 20 minutes, the Moon emerged from the cloud bank and we saw the rest of the partial phase plus some colored shading during the penumbral phase. By that time, however, our view was through the east window at one of Milwaukee's fine restaurants. At least I know how to salvage an evening.

Luckily, as photo editor, I could relive the event through images submitted by several of our European, African, and Asian readers. If you image an astronomical event, celestial object, or unusual sky phenomenon, send it to my attention at readergallery@astronomy.com.

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