Early Wednesday, lucky sky-watchers in portions of the U.S. will get a rare celestial treat, one that NASA is calling a lunar trifecta: a “super blue blood moon.”
What exactly is this? It’s a trio of lunar events all occurring at once: the second full moon in one calendar month (a blue moon), at its closest orbital approach to Earth (a supermoon) during a lunar eclipse (a blood moon).
This will be the first super blue blood moon visible in the U.S. since the end of the Civil War, or nearly 152 years. It will be the first time anyone on Earth has seen one in 35 years.
Here in Hampton Roads, we’re not so lucky: We’ll have a chance at a super blue moon, weather permitting, but only a few moments of an eclipse visible on the western horizon before the rising sun erases it. The entire eclipse will be most visible on the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii.
NASA’s lunar blogger Gordon Johnston said in a release that folks out west “will have a spectacular view of totality from start to finish.”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “eclipse viewing will be challenging in the Eastern time zone. The eclipse begins at 5:51 a.m. ET as the moon is about to set in the western sky and the sky is getting lighter in the east.”
Hampton Roads still has a shot, said Fred Farris, senior director of exhibits at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News.
“If folks can get to a situation where they can look out to the western sky,” Farris said, “they should see the moon setting, and that’s when we’ll get a shot at that lunar eclipse section and see the redness.”
The eclipse should be most visible here starting around 6:45 a.m., he said, and peak at 7:10. But that’s just as the moon is setting and the sun is beginning to rise.
“It’s kind of a race against the sun coming up and the moon setting and how bright it gets and your vantage point of where you can get a clear look at the western sky,” Farris said.
“We are not in the best spot, but it will be a beautiful moon, anyway. It’ll be super and blue — it just won’t be bloody.”
The museum’s Abbitt Observatory & Planetarium isn’t planning anything special for the event, he said, because it’s happening so early in the morning.
A supermoon is special because the moon’s close approach to Earth in its elliptical orbit — its perigee — can make it appear up to 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than at its apogee, or its farthest point from Earth, NASA says.
In a lunar eclipse, the Earth is positioned just right between the sun and the moon so that it completely blankets the moon in its shadow.
And so, when the supermoon passes behind Earth, the sun will basically backlight the planet with a fiery rim of sunrises and sunsets that cast a reddish or brown hue on the lunar surface.
Supermoons can appear in a string of twos and threes. The last supermoon was just last month. And 2016 closed out with three supermoons in a row, from October through December.
The last blue moon was in July 2015, but we won’t have to wait long at all for the next: There will be another one in March.
We also won’t have to wait another 35 years for the next super blue blood moon: The next one will appear in just 10 years, on Dec. 31, 2028.
NASA TV will offer a live feed of the super blue blood moon event beginning at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday at nasa.gov/nasatv
Contact Dietrich at 757-247-7892 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at DP_Dietrich