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Looking up: Rare supermoon eclipse fills the Sunday sky

Posted at 5:28 PM, Sep 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-27 17:28:23-04

On Sunday night and early Monday morning, much of the Earth will witness a glorious heavenly event.

The night of September 27-28 will showcase a lunar eclipse coupled with a "supermoon:" a full moon that appears larger because it's at perigee, the closest point of its orbit with Earth. The concurrence is relatively rare,having not happened since 1982.

Though some observers are viewing the date with fear -- calling the eclipse a "blood moon" -- for astronomers and stargazers, the event is to be welcomed with celebration.

"It's a beautiful sight in the nighttime sky," said Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. "It's a way of connecting us to the universe at large. It gives us this view that there's a bigger picture than just what we're concerned with in our daily lives."

iReport: Share your supermoon eclipse images with us

The entire eclipse, from first shadow to last, will be visible from most of the Americas -- including the eastern half of the United States -- Greenland, Western Europe, western Africa north of the equator and parts of Antarctica. Other portions of the world, including western North America, the rest of Europe and Africa and a swath of western Asia, will see most of the drama, though they'll miss the first or fading bites of the moon.

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How to watch the supermoon eclipse

The total lunar eclipse will last about one hour and 12 minutes, according to NASA. It will be seen in North and South America, as well as Europe, Africa, parts of West Asia and the eastern Pacific.

However, skywatchers can camp out early for the partial lunar eclipse, which will begin at 8 p.m. ET in the United States. As the planet's shadow dims the supermoon, this will create dramatic viewing opportunities for observers. The eclipse will reach its peak during the 10 o'clock hour, giving the supermoon a reddish, copper-like hue. The event should end after midnight.

Unlike solar eclipses, which need to be viewed with special eye gear, the lunar eclipse can be seen with the naked eye after nightfall.

Why this event is special

Since the orbit of the moon is not a perfect circle, there are times when the moon is closer to our planet. This is known as perigee. Sunday's supermoon will technically be a perigee full moon, the closest full moon of the year, NASA says.

"There's no physical difference in the moon," said Noah Petro, scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "It just appears slightly bigger in the sky. It's not dramatic, but it does look larger."

Lunar eclipses are common and happen twice a year. However, there are some end-times theorists who view Sunday's event as a signal for the end of the world.

Petro explained that the combination of a supermoon and eclipse happening at the same time is just planetary dynamics. "When the rhythms line up, you might get three to four eclipses in a row or a supermoon and an eclipse happening," he said.

But the last time a supermoon eclipse occurred was in 1982, making Sunday's rare event worth staying up past bedtime.