San Juan College plans lunar eclipse viewing event on Sunday
Celestial event will begin shortly after 8:30 p.m., last 3 hours
FARMINGTON — The total lunar eclipse coming Sunday night may lack the wow factor that accompanied the August 2017 solar eclipse witnessed by millions of Americans. But San Juan College Planetarium coordinator David Mayeux still encourages local residents to brave the cold weather and give it a look.
"It's not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it's not an everyday event, either," he said.
Mayeux will be offering night-sky watchers a special opportunity to see the celestial event with an eclipse viewing event Sunday night in the courtyard outside the Planetarium on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Visitors will have the chance to view the eclipse through a telescope, watching as the moon moves in and out of the Earth's shadow over the course of three-plus hours.
Mayeux regularly stages eclipse viewing parties, and though he acknowledged that solar eclipses tend to attract more attention, he said lunar eclipses offer their own kind of excitement.
"It captures our imagination as human thinkers," he said, describing the appeal of eclipses.
Depending on the weather, Mayeux said the lunar eclipse watching events he has offered in the past have attracted anywhere from two dozen to 200 people.
"It can be a pretty healthy crowd if it's a nice night," he said.
Sunday's celestial event will be the only total lunar eclipse of 2019, meaning the moon will pass entirely through the Earth's shadow, rather than just a portion of it, which is the case with many eclipses. Mayeux said that doesn't mean the moon will go completely dark. Instead, it will take on a deep red-orange color as the sun's rays pass through the Earth's atmosphere. That effect will cause those light rays to bend toward the red end of the spectrum, he said.
Mayeux plans on beginning his viewing event at 8:30 p.m., just minutes before the eclipse begins as the moon begins to enter the Earth's umbra, or deep shadow. At 9:41 p.m., the totality phase will begin, with the sun's direct rays totally obscured by the Earth.
The deepest phase of the eclipse will come at 10:13 p.m., and the moon will begin to emerge from the Earth's shadow at 10:43 p.m., ending totality. The umbral eclipse will continue until 11:50 p.m., when the moon fully moves out of the Earth's shadow.
Mayeux said several factors can influence the appearance of the moon during a lunar eclipse, primarily the amount and type of particulate matter in the Earth's upper atmosphere. If that air is mostly clear, he said, the moon will have a yellowish-orange tint during an eclipse. But if that zone is filled with volcanic ash from recent eruptions, he said, the color of the moon will be much darker, perhaps even leading to a colorless or even black eclipse in extreme cases.
The longest total lunar eclipse of a century was visible Friday. The moon donned a fiery red look, casting it as a "blood moon," when the sun and moon are on exact opposite sides of the Earth, cutting off sunlight from the moon. USA TODAY
"You don't see any light whatsoever," he said.
He recalled witnessing such an eclipse in 1993, one that occurred during a period of heavy volcanic activity. There was so much ash in the upper atmosphere, Mayeux said, that when the moon entered the phase of totality, it simply disappeared for the naked eye.
Mayeux said the moon's position in the sky during that eclipse was in the constellation Taurus. He was able to find it with his telescope during totality only because he knew precisely where to look for it in the sky.
That situation won't arise in this instance, he said.
"We should have color in this one," he said.
Witnessing an eclipse through a powerful telescope like the one Mayeux will have set up Sunday night is a memorable experience, he said. But local residents who don't feel like traveling to San Juan College can still enjoy the eclipse from their backyard.
"You don't need a telescope to see this," he said, explaining that even naked-eye viewing yields a good experience.
For those who lack access to a telescope but still want a better view, Mayeux offered a relatively simple alternative.
"Binoculars are really underrated as an astronomical viewing aid," he said. "Binoculars are really good for something like this."
Those using binoculars will want to brace their elbows on a solid, stationary object, he said, to hold the moon steady in their field of vision.
But even the best-prepared sky watcher could be disappointed on Sunday, Mayeux said, noting that unfavorable weather conditions could eliminate any chance of seeing the eclipse. His viewing at the college will be cancelled in the event of rain, snow or overcast skies. But partly cloudy skies should offer at least fleeting glimpses of the eclipse, he said.
Admission is free and open to the public. Call Mayeux at 505-566-3361 for more information.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.