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Cookstown Perigee Total Lunar Eclipse - September 28th 2015

I have observed a number of partial and total lunar eclipses before over the years however never before had I the pleasure of potentially witnessing a perigee total lunar eclipse which was to take place during the early morning hours of September 28th 2015. Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth is located between the Sun and Moon and as a result the Earth's shadow get's projected onto the lunar disk which greatly dims the lunar light causing an eclipse. However this Earth-Sun-Moon alignment does not happen every month and even during the few times it does the moon sometimes passes through the outer portion of the Earth's shadow causing a partial eclipse, however in order to get total eclipse the moon needs to be covered fully by the Earth's shadow (Umbra). The Moon's orbit is also slightly ecliptical rather than being a perfect circle so at times the moon is further away from the Earth (apogee) and at other times closer to the Earth (perigee) and it is these perigee full moons which have become known as 'supermoons' by the online community. Personally speaking I despise the supermoon label and see it simply as a product of social networking sites who often use the dramatic term to promote hits and likes from those who little understand the subject. Instead of supermoon I prefer the term 'perigee full moon', normally I would not be so excited by a full moon however the prospect of watching a total perigee lunar eclipse was something else entirely, this would be something new for me to add to my list, something rare and special and more importantly something which I had never seen before so for this reason I took a keen interest and was quietly optimistic that I might just see it.

I tried to control any building excitement because one mention of eclipses, comets or aurora and you can guarantee that the clouds will hear you and move in to spoil the show, this is not soothsaying of any kind but plain fact because Ireland is legendary for it. A strong high pressure cell had built across UK and Ireland during this time and with it came a lot of cloud and foggy nights and three days before totality I was preparing myself for a complete let down because the forecast looked dire, however a couple of days later the synoptics changed and suddenly it looked like the night of Sunday September 27th/28th was going to be clear, now that was a pleasant surprise indeed, a clear night in 2015 coinciding with something interesting happening in the sky, I vowed I was going to make the most of it. The eclipse umbral phase would not begin until 02.00 UT with totality between 03.00 and 04.00 UT so it looked like it was going to be a night for setting the alarm. Earlier that day was splendid, warm, sunny spells and slack SWly flow with a few breaks in the cloud hinting that we could get lucky later. Roisin and I where staying at my Dad's house in Cookstown where we planned to spend the night so we would be observing the eclipse from there, I liked the sound of that, a new location which is always good. I didn't have any fancy gear for impressive eclipse images so I didn't feel the need to drive to a remote location, actually for once photography came second place to the visual experience, I would be taking images however my priority was to visually watch the eclipse with Roisin and enjoy this special celestial event together, after all, Roisin had never seen an eclipse before so this visual experience became top priority, if I got any decent images in the process it would be a bonus and perhaps I would take video too.

During that dry and mild afternoon we had a lovely BBQ in the backyard with all the trimmings which was absolutely gorgeous and by late evening we were entertaining guests and several of whom where asking about the eclipse and wanting to see it for themselves. Dusk gave way to astronomical darkness and I enjoyed a bottle of beer while doing regular scans out the sunroom windows looking for a hint of the moon rising between the clouds. Just after 19.00 UT the full moon appeared behind a bank of dramatic dark clouds so I went out to the backyard to get a few test images in preparation for later that night. I attached the Canon 100-400mm USM lens to the 600D on a static tripod and took several images and video clips which was very straight forward and highly successful, above is one of the images showing the cloud scudding past the lunar disk. During the course of the evening I would make several trips outside then I would return inside to show the guests the images on the back of the LCD screen and point out a few interesting features such as the Tycho ray system and Mare Tranquillitatis where man first walked on the moon. Later that night the guests slowly departed and I relaxed with a nice glass of Black Bush then Roisin and I went to bed at 01.00 UT.

My alarm went off at 02.30 UT and I awoke and got up straight away and turned on my lap top and spent ten minutes reading through the real time reports through twitter and facebook, it seemed many people had clear skies and were having a fun time, I could almost sense the collective excitement from thousands of people watching at this very moment. Roisin woke up and I half expected her to go back to sleep, after all she was tired and wasn't used to getting up at this hour however much to my delight she got up with motivation and determination, she really wanted to see this eclipse, I was proud of her. We quietly walked down the stairs, across the dark hallway and made our way into the kitchen then I grabbed my camera gear, opened the back door and waked into the backyard and was delighted to see a 100% clear sky however I instantly noticed that it was eerily dark, darker than it should be, it was 02.45 UT and it was getting closer to totality. It was shocking to look at the moon and see it wasn't a full disk that it should have been, instead I was looking at what appeared to be a first quarter moon, the umbral passage was advancing fast and even as the minutes passed I was sure I could see the lit side shrinking in real time. I got the 100-400mm on and got the above image, the exposure was short and shutter fast to stop the motion of the moon and the sunlit side blowing out, however what it doesn't show is the dark side which now looked a shady dark with a subtle blue-rose colour with the naked eye, this portion was getting more dominant as the Earth's shadow crossed over more of the lunar surface.

Roisin came out and joined me under the rapidly darkening sky, she passed me a warm brew which tested like nectar at this hour of the night, we drank our tea together and watched the eclipse, the moon seemed to be vanishing before our eyes and the stars were getting brighter and the shadows darker, it was an amazing transition. Well after 03.00 UT totality was happening, I took this one with the 50mm F/1.8 lens showing the eclipse adjacent to my Dad's tree which was full of leaves in Autumn colour, I briefly shone my head torch light across the leaves which worked out rather well, the eclipsed moon was well placed in the SW within Pisces, please note that the eclipse was much darker to the eye than it appears on these images.

We walked around to the front garden and continued observing and taking images and video as we watched with silent awe as totality changed the landscape, it was beautiful and even spiritual to watch, Roisin and I both felt it signified the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. This was the darkest eclipse I had ever seen, the sky was completely dark with bright Milky Way and M31 easy to see with the naked eye and had I thought to do so at the time I most likely would have detected M33 also. At this hour of the night Cookstown was silent and dark, it felt like we where in the middle of the countryside and so still, sublime and peaceful was the eclipse that Roisin and I mainly watched in silence and the few times we did speak it was in a whisper, the eclipse demanded this kind of respect. Within Pisces was this 3-D looking dark ball among the stars - the moon - if you didn't know where to look it would easily have been missed in a casual glance of the sky, visually we could see orange-red and blue-black colours and one could even discern the shape and precise location of the umbral shadow, it was amazing to see this in person, here we were at 04.00 UT in the morning looking at the shadow of the Earth on the surface of another world.

After a little more shooting I left the camera alone then Roisin and I stood within the front porch in darkness, arms around each other and together we watched the eclipse in silence, it was a special moment and a fabulous memory, this was pure magic. We watched a large hedgehog silently walk through the dew soaked grass at the other end of the garden. After 04.30 UT totality had passed and the sunlit glow of the limb had re-appeared, this time on the opposite side of the disk then Roisin and I called it a night, we had seen the eclipse at its best and this was precisely what we had wanted, the night was utter perfection. Before going in I stood in the silent backyard and had one last look at the sky, I felt happy and content, the sky and weather had done us proud, I felt like it was meant to be and that it was made just for us and with that thought I returned back inside and we enjoyed one last mug of tea then returned to bed and soon fell into a peaceful sleep.

I truly believe that this eclipse signified a change to better times, before it were months of quiet skies and clouds and since the eclipse there has been a change for the better and I felt positive that more exciting and thrilling sky events would happen on the months ahead. However I didn't have long to wait for that very next day - the 28th - a stunning sunset appeared as if the magic of the eclipse was still resonating within the atmosphere. The western sky was lit into a truly incredible cloudscape of red and orange colour, I ran outside and took several images from my garden in Maghera however images don't do the scene justice, the light was unreal and unlike anything I had ever seen before, the entire front of my house was glowing orange and pink!, at that moment I wished I had been at a country location or even a lake to capture this amazing sight however I had to make do with this image, I'm only including it on here to document the event.

1080P HD video footage showing various stages of the total perigee lunar eclipse from Cookstown filmed with the 600D and 100-400mm lens.

Video footage of the stunning sunset cloudscape from Maghera the following day. On the days following the eclipse it was confirmed by scientists that this was an unusually dark lunar eclipse, the reasons were that being at perigee and hence closer to Earth the moon would have been engulfed more within our planet's shadow and secondly the greater abundance of aerosols and dust in the atmosphere also played a significant role in the darkening so the end result was a product of nature's orbital mechanics and the effects of man made pollution. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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