We’re All In This Together: Lunar Totality

There's much to take in during Saturday morning's total lunar eclipse, including a rare Moon-galaxy pairing, the splendid summer Milky Way, and a chance to see your shadow reach all the way to the Moon.

Many moons, one shadow

Saturday morning's total lunar eclipse will provide several unique observing opportunities.
Bob King

When the Moon slips into Earth's shadow during Saturday morning's total lunar eclipse, the last thing you'll probably think about is turning away from the sight to look at something else.

Well, let me be that little devil on your shoulder. Can I coax you to spend a few minutes during the eclipse taking advantage of several unique opportunities? The first will still allow you to keep an eye on the Moon's progress.

If you live in the far western U.S. or Canada, the Moon passes unusually close to one of the brightest galaxies along its orbital path — NGC 4697, a 9th-magnitude elliptical 40-50 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. Through my 10-inch scope in gibbous moonlight, the galaxy is easy to spot as an elongated hazy patch with a bright, extended nucleus.

Rare close and distant pairing

While the Moon will be too low in a bright sky from the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., skywatchers along the West Coast and points west have a chance to see a rare close alignment of the fully eclipsed Moon and the 9th-magnitude galaxy NGC 4697. The Moon will be in total eclipse at the local times shown. North is up and stars are numbered with magnitudes.
Stellarium, Inset: STScI

When was the last time you saw the Moon and a distant galaxy side by side? Probably never, and you may not see it this time either, but it's worth a try. With the Moon's brilliance tamed by Earth's umbral shadow, there's a real possibility of spotting this rare pairing. Only two other galaxies of similar magnitude (and none brighter) lie along the Moon's weaving path — M74 and M96.

The Moon will likely be too low to glimpse this rare sight from the mountain states. Conditions are much better along the West Coast, where the galaxy lies 1/4° or 15′ west of the totally eclipsed Moon, and positively peachy in Hawaii. There, NGC 4697 glows 28′ or about lunar diameter away. Head down to Alice Springs, Australia and their separation increases to 1.5° at totality. That might be too expansive to call a close pair, but the galaxy should be easier to see.

Shadowed Moon, Sky Filled with Stars

Around the time of totality the sky will darken, allowing skywatchers a grand view of the Milky Way in the southeast. Intrepid observers may want to see if the recent nova in Sagittarius is still visible with the naked eye. Click image for charts and more information about the nova. The map shows the sky facing south from San Francisco around 5 a.m local time.
Source: Stellarium

Finding a galaxy lurking so close to the reddened Moon's rim might prove a great challenge, but you'll find our list of "other things to look for" is decidedly easier. When three-quarters or more of the Moon lies steeped in shadow, take a few minutes to look around. Remember how washed out the sky appeared before the eclipse? With the return of darkness, the sky's alive again with stars. Meanwhile, the landscape, once cheery with moonlight, has gone dark. The change is positively eerie and reminiscent of the temporary darkness during a total solar eclipse.

Spherical play

Music of the spheres? The curving arc of Earth's shadow on the Moon during partial eclipse.
Bob King

Because the eclipse happens during morning hours for observers in the western hemisphere, the summertime stars are all up, including the spectacular summer Milky Way. Take this rare shadow-time moment to appreciate its brief reappearance.

You may even want to try your eye on that nova in Sagittarius, which as of this writing, has re-brightened to magnitude +5.0, well within naked-eye range under a (surprise) moonless sky.

Another one of my favorite eclipse activities is tracing the curve of Earth's shadow over the lunar disk. Its arc reminds us we live on a sphere. Sure, we all know this in our heads, but there's nothing like the visceral sensation you get when you stare 240,000 miles out into space at Earth's curving outline.

Eclipse Love-fest

Steadfast Comet Lovejoy can be found in Cassiopeia 1° south of 4.7 magnitude Psi Cassiopeiae.
Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

Seen Comet Lovejoy in a dark sky lately? This steadfast friend still hovers around magnitude 6.5, making it an easy binocular object. If you have time, head over to Cassiopeia, low in the northern sky, and point your glass at 5th-magnitude Psi Cas. That shred of cotton candy 1° south of the star is the comet; telescopes will still show a tail.

We're almost done. I saved the easiest and more widely visible for last. Lunar eclipses occur when the full Moon passes directly through Earth's shadow. At the Moon's distance of 240,000 miles, the dark core or Earth's shadow or umbra subtends an angle of just 1.4°, or not quite three times the size of a Full Moon.

That's pretty tiny. Here on Earth, the planet's shadow spreads across half the sky. We see it every clear evening as a deep purplish band rising in the eastern sky after the Sun sets in the west. Likewise in the west shortly before sunrise.

On Saturday morning, whether you're watching the totally or partially eclipsed Moon in the brightening dawn sky, take note of Earth's vast shadow slowly descending toward the western horizon. Consider that you also make up a tiny part of this specter which shades the Moon 240,000 miles away. We're all in this eclipse together.

From here to there in dusky intimacy

Earth's shadow, seen here in the western sky during morning twilight on October 8, 2014, extends out into space to touch the Moon, setting in partial eclipse.
Bob King


Get to know your Moon! Use the Sky & Telescope Moon Globe to plot your path from crater to valley, maria to moutain.

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Explore the Night with Bob King, Observing, Observing News & Current Celestial Events
Bob King

About Bob King

Amateur astronomer since childhood and long-time member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Bob King also teaches community education astronomy and writes the blog Astro Bob. The universe invites us on an adventure every single night. All we need do is look up. Check out my forthcoming book "Night Sky with the Naked Eye" (on Amazon and BN) about all the great things you can see at night without any special equipment.