Observing and Photographing Lunar Eclipses
Lunar eclipses are leisurely events and a pleasure to watch and photograph.
"Like a distant peach hanging in the sky!" That's how Akira Fujii described the July 2000 eclipse a nighttime spectacle that was the most beautiful lunar eclipse the veteran astrophotographer had ever seen.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth lies between the Sun and the Moon, so that Earth’s shadow darkens the Moon. This can only happen when the Moon is full. The dark, central shadow is called the umbra, while the lighter shadow that surrounds it is the penumbra. The penumbral shadow is weak and often difficult to detect; for most observers a lunar eclipse really gets going when the umbra first touches the lunar surface. Totality occurs when the Moon is completely immersed in the Earth’s umbral shadow.
Lunar eclipses get their colorful red-orange hues from sunlight that is filtered and bent by the Earth's atmosphere around into its shadow. This is the light of all the world's sunrises and sunsets ringing the globe at the time. Bright and colorful eclipses occur when our planet’s upper atmosphere is most transparent. Major volcanic eruptions spew dust and aerosols into the stratosphere, resulting in darker lunar eclipses.
The Moon's brightness varies greatly from eclipse to eclipse, which would tell a lot about the state of the Earth's upper atmosphere if only we understood it better. To help in compiling statistics of this kind, many observers rank each eclipse they see on the five-point Danjon Scale.
|Danjon Scale of Brightness|
|0||Very dark eclipse, Moon almost invisible,|
especially at midtotality.
|1||Dark eclipse, gray or brownish coloration;|
details distinguishable only with difficulty.
|2||Deep red or rust-colored eclipse, with a|
very dark central part in the umbra and
the outer rim of the umbra relatively bright.
|3||Brick-red eclipse, usually with a bright|
or yellow rim to the umbra.
|4||Very bright copper-red or orange eclipse,|
with a bluish, very bright umbral rim.
An even simpler technique was advocated 80 years ago by Harvard astronomer Willard Fisher, who graded mid-totality into three classes depending on the equipment needed to see details on the Moon's surface: (1) the naked eye, (2) a 50-millimeter finderscope or binoculars at 7x, or (3) a 150-mm (6-inch) telescope at about 20x. Fisher reasoned that the Moon's surface brightness is unaltered by the aperture, but the visibility of low-contrast features like lunar maria depends greatly on the image scale. The darker the eclipse, the greater the aperture (and power) needed.
Still another useful gauge is the Moon's stellar magnitude at mideclipse. People who wear thick eyeglasses can simply take them off, turning the Moon and bright stars or planets into blobs of about equal size for easier comparison. Looking through the wrong end of binoculars also works.