By: Kristin Foss
Decked out with my binoculars, digital camera with an extended lens, and my trusty notebook, I climbed the circular staircase to the Landolt Astronomical Observatory on LSU’s campus to try to glimpse of the “Super Blood Moon.” It was pitch black except for red lights illuminating the staircase. In the corner was a man playing the primitive sounds of a didgeridoo. The man was Dr. Bradley Schaefer. By day he is an astrophysicist and professor in LSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, but on nights such as lunar eclipses, he opens the Landolt Astronomical Observatory for the public to come witness these incredible phenomena. And hundreds gathered to see the “Super Blood Moon” that occurred this past Sunday (September 27, 2015).
So what exactly is the “Super Blood Moon”? According to NASA, the Super Blood Moon is when a full or new moon is at or nearing its closest approach to Earth, causing it look up to 14% larger in diameter. Now combine this with a lunar eclipse, where the moon moves directly behind the earth into its shadow. Due to this shadowing, almost all colors are filtered out except for red, giving the moon a reddish brown tint. If there have been recent volcanic eruptions, the particles in the atmosphere can cause the lunar eclipse to appear darker and redder. All of this combined gives you the incredible phenomenon of the Super Moon Lunar Eclipse!
On the other hand, according to Dr. Schaefer, the “Super Blood Moon” should just be called a total lunar eclipse because that’s all it is.
“The term blood moon is a great descriptive term [to portray the coloration], but the term ‘Super Moon’ is basically meaningless,” Schaefer said. “I’ve published about forty papers on lunar visibility and I’m a world’s expert on this…. and no one would ever notice it [the increased moon size of the ‘Super Moon’].”
Even if you did notice the apparently increased size of the ‘Super Moon,’ because it is slightly closer to the earth than normal at this point in its orbit, there are other effects which are more noticeable, Schaefer said.
Despite the controversy over the correct name, this lunar eclipse was an impressive sight to behold.
Approximately 200 amateur astronomers gathered at LSU’s Landolt Astronomical Observatory to catch a glimpse of the lunar eclipse this past Sunday (September 27, 2015). Unfortunately, due to the threat of inclement weather, Dr. Schaefer didn’t dare risk opening up the Clark telescope to get an even closer look at the lunar eclipse. Rain and world-class telescopes do not mix well. However, the lunar eclipse can be best viewed by the naked eye or through binoculars. Luckily, the clouds parted for a quarter of the time for us to see the ‘blood moon’ relatively well!
“This is a good classic, ordinary lunar eclipse, ” narrated Dr. Schaefer during the full lunar eclipse process. He pointed out that the earth’s shadow on the moon had a distinctive circular arc – providing strong evidence that the earth is indeed spherical in shape (for all those earth-is-flat critics!). You could even see the moon colorations change from shades of dark-brooding red to relatively bright cherry red.
“It’s humbling to see the moon that far away,” Schaefer said. “It’s huge. It’s big. In some ways it shows us man’s place in the universe. If you go back in history up until about a century or two ago, everywhere in the world on all continents, people were deathly afraid of the moon.”
Historically, the sun and the moon in many cultures often represented gods and deities. When an eclipse occurred, these phenomena were interpreted as the death of a god – a bad omen.
For example, Dr. Schaefer explained that among numerous indigenous groups in Central America, a lunar eclipse symbolizes a jaguar eating the moon. After it ‘eats’ the moon, it will still be hungry and return to earth to consume you. In Southeast Asia, the lunar eclipse represents a demon eating the moon. Many of these omens and superstitions can be attributable to fear of the disruption of Earth’s natural order. Additionally, it was thought lunar eclipses were the cause of great battles and the fall of empires such as siege of Syracuse and fall of Constantinople (Schaefer 1992).
“Back then, everywhere in the world had something like that which evoked fear about these eclipses,” Schaefer said. “So why did people change? Why aren’t the people here afraid of the moon? Well, once you realize what’s going on – you see that it’s just a shadow. And who’s afraid of a shadow?”
Since 1900, a Super Moon Lunar Eclipse, by NASA standards, has only happened five times (1910, 1928, 1946, 1964, 1982). Sunday’s lunar eclipse lasted for approximately 1 hour and 11 minutes, and you had a pretty good shot of seeing this eclipse if you happened to be in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and parts of West Asia and the Eastern Pacific.
But don’t worry. If you missed this one, you can catch the next “Super Blood Moon ” in the year 2033!
Schaefer, Bradley E. “Lunar eclipses that changed the world.” Sky and Telescope 84 (1992): 639.