The eve of January 31st painted a special sky with a rare moon. On this night, people around the world witnessed the Super Blue Blood Moon, a once-in-a-lifetime lunar eclipse. The dance of shadows involving the Sun, the Earth and the Moon lasted for a few hours. The night sky of January 31st revealed a total lunar eclipse, but much more peculiar due to a historic arrangement of the cosmos. The significant night gathered friends, family, and communities who all watched the moon in its different formations.
For thousands of years, eclipses were conceived differently. People were amazed, fascinated, and frightened with the moon’s different faces. For millennia prior to where we are now, humans were scared of the unknown shadows that blanket the sun and the moon. Different cultures had different stories of such phenomena, which most involved spirits, animals, or something inexplicable. Some stories say that some strange beast swallows the sun or the moon during an eclipse — a dragon in China, a frog in Vietnam, a bird in Hungary, a bear in Siberia, a snake for Mayans, and Rahu and Ketu in India. However, as science took over, and revealed the understanding about eclipses, fear and awe towards the phenomenon faded slowly. As a result, appreciation about eclipses ensued.
In India, eclipses were related to the early stories about the demon Svarbhanu, who was later identified with Rahu and the story of the churning of nectar. On the other hand, Ketu, which is the former name for comets and meteors, also became identified with the eclipse. The introduction of astrology from the Geeks solidified the early stories, until the genius of Aryabhata (476-550 C.E.), born in present day Patna, correctly explained the cause of eclipses. He even provided a method to accurately calculate such phenomenon. Eventually, other astronomers in India refined his method over the next few centuries, which, up to now is still being used in many parts of the country.
We know that a solar eclipse happens when the Moon’s shadow falls on the Earth, and a lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon. Thus, many people ask, why don’t we see eclipses every full and new moon? Well, it’s because the orbit of the moon around the earth, and the earth around the sun are not the same. Their orbits are titled at around 5 degrees with respect to each other. Therefore, during a normal new moon or full moon, the sun, earth and moon do not fall in a straight line. In fact, during a typical new moon or full moon, the moon passes close to the sun, but not close enough to cover it.
Last January 31st, the sun, the Earth and the moon fell exactly in a straight line, resulting in a Total Lunar Eclipse. During the eclipse, the shadow of the earth and the moon had an umbra, which is the totally dark part, and the penumbra, a shadow that is not fully dark. This event can be understood when holding an object at some distance from a piece of paper, and a shadow is formed.
During the Super Blue Blood Moon, the Full Moon first entered the penumbral shadow, appearing a bit dimmer. Then, it entered the umbral shadow, the stage of the partial eclipse, where we clearly saw the shape of the Earth’s shadow slowly covered the Moon. When the moon was covered to a larger extent, the red color begun to occur. By the time it was fully eclipsed, it had a red color.
On the night of the eclipse, the partial eclipse started at 5.18 pm, the total eclipse lasted from 6.22 to 7.38 pm, and the partial eclipse ended at 8.41 pm. The penumbral eclipse then ended at 9.39 pm.
The name Super Blood Blue Moon is fascinating and intriguing as it is due to its meaning. We see the moon from the earth in different sizes due to its elliptical orbit. When it hits its perigee, which is its closest distance from our planet, it appears 14% bigger than the apogee, which is when the moon is farthest from us.
The perigee can be observed once every 27.3 days. When a perigee coincides with a Full Moon, it’s called a Super Moon. A blue moon is not literally blue, but a term called when two Full Moons happen in a single month, which what happened last January 31st. Lastly, since the eclipsed moon was red in color, due to its umbral and penumbral shadow, we called it the Blood Moon. Therefore, we named the lunar phenomenon on January 31st, the Super Blood Blue Moon.
Despite our modern age, there are still various beliefs and cultures about the lunar eclipse. Some of these beliefs scare people from witnessing a breathtaking lunar phenomenon. When in fact, it’s just a movement of shadows, and a natural cosmic event. There is no harmful radiation during an eclipse, either a change in gravity.
The superstitious beliefs about the Super Blue Blood Moon have no scientific basis or facts. Negative assumptions about an eclipse can even be harmful. For instance, if a pregnant woman refuses to deliver a child or undergo treatment due to the eclipse, or a person with health issues stops eating or drinking during the lunar event. Instead, when a lunar eclipse happens again, we should go out and watch the mystical cosmic episode unfold in front of us. Let’s witness the transformations of the moon with no fear.
If you missed the Super Blue Blood Moon, the Public Outreach and Education Committee of the Astronomical Society of India has set up a webpage for the eclipse. You can witness the phenomenon again through videos, animations, and articles in English and many Indian languages.
As Carl Sagan said in his book Cosmos, “The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality”.
Enjoy this quick video that provides more info on this natural phenomenon: