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Moon's Night Out : Lunar Eclipse Will Span Several Hours Sunday, Brighten Up the Stars


Pull out your telescopes, binoculars and cameras, or simply point your eyes upward Sunday night, and get ready to be moonstruck.

The moon, Earth's closest neighbor, will stage another spectacular show Sunday when it slides behind the Earth's shadow to create a total lunar eclipse.

The eclipse--created by the alignments of the sun, Earth, and moon--will be visible from any point in Orange County not illuminated by urban night light, as long as the sky remains clear of clouds.

"This is perfectly timed and it's perfectly placed," said John Sanford, former president of the Orange County Astronomers Club. "It will begin in the early evening, it will be almost directly overhead by the time the eclipse is finished, and it's also in a pretty part of the sky."

The moon's position during this eclipse, "the pretty part of the sky," makes the event even more spectacular, because as the moonlight dims, the stars will shine brighter. The moon will be in Taurus, midway between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters, and above Aldebaran, the brightest star of the constellation.

Also, as the moon enters the Earth's shadow, its color will change from its usual silvery-white to dark orange or red. The color change is caused by the Earth's atmosphere, which bends part of the sun's light around the Earth and toward the moon.

Unlike solar eclipses, there is no danger in directly viewing the lunar eclipse.

The eclipse will begin at 7:27 p.m., and the moon will be completely obscured for 48 minutes, beginning at 10:02 p.m.

The last total lunar eclipse visible to Southern California occurred earlier this year but was partially obstructed by clouds. Sanford said this one will be the first providing this kind of a celestial show in a couple of years.

"They are not too rare, but we don't always get to see them, because sometimes we are on the wrong side of the Earth," Sanford said.

The best place to see the eclipse could be in a back yard, as long as city lights don't obscure the view. But darkened hillsides or the wide-open desert will enhance the ability to see faint stars that usually cannot be seen when the moon is full and bright.

Sanford also suggested Carl Thornton Park on Segerstrom Avenue in Santa Ana, where stargazers will begin gathering at 7 p.m. and share their telescopes with anyone wanting to experience the spectacle.

While the naked eye will be able to see the changes in the moon as it passes through the darkness of Earth's shadow, Sanford said that people with telescopes will be able to watch the moon cover several bright stars.

Brent Place, the manager of Scope City in Costa Mesa, said high-quality binoculars with "higher light-grabbing ability" will work just as well as telescopes.

Place said his store was overrun Friday by Christmas shoppers and amateur astronomers wanting to experience Saturday's the eclipse.

"I think it's very interesting to people, because the moon is the closest celestial body that people can see even casually," Place said. "The eclipse is something different, and that's what draws people's attention to it."

In the Dark

Weather permitting, people in California and the West will be able to witness what is expected to be a particularly graphic total lunar eclipse Sunday, as the moon passes through Earth's shadow.

Timing: Astronomers at Griffith Observatory say the eclipse is well-timed for West Coast residents because it will occur late in the evening, when the moon is higher in the sky.

Other eclipses: It will be the first total eclipse visible in Los Angeles since June 4, an event obscured locally by clouds. The next total lunar eclipse visible in the Los Angeles area will occur in September, 1996.

Best View: Although the moon will enter the faintest fringe of Earth's shadow at 7:27 p.m., the best viewing will be after 8:40, when it begins to slip into the dark inner shadow. The moon should be completely obscured for 48 minutes, starting at 10:02 p.m.

UMBRA (Darkest part of Earth's shadow)

All times are Pacific Standard Time 1:25 a.m.: MOON LEAVES PENUMBRA 12:12 a.m.: MOON LEAVES UMBRA 10:50 p.m.: TOTAL ECLIPSE ENDS 10:02 p.m.: TOTAL ECLIPSE BEGINS 8:40 p.m.: PARTIAL ECLIPSE BEGINS 7:27 p.m.: MOON ENTERS PENUMBRA PENUMBRA (Outer fringe of Earth's shadow) Sources: Sky & Telescope Magazine, Griffith Observatory

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