(Above) Me having a brew and watching the television weather reports in the kitchen in advance of the eclipse. That's my sister's reptile tank in the background with the red light.
On Thursday morning February 20/21st 2008 the UK would experience the best total lunar eclipse until 2028. The complete event would begin at 00.30 UT with the penumbral stage and end after 06.00 UT before dawn at waning penumbral stage. The Earth's umbral shadow would cover a generous area of the lunar disk so this was expected to be a bright eclipse. Totality would take place in the middle of the night when the Moon would be fairly high in the SW within the constellation of Leo. For icing on the celestial cake the eclipsed Moon would also have a nice conjunction with the 1st magnitude star 'Regulus' to the right (west) and planet Saturn close by to the left (east). The last total lunar eclipse took place on March 3rd 2007 (read the report) which we observed from the frigid peak of Slieve Gallion mountain. This was a wonderful sight so I was more than excited about the February 21st event which would take place only 2 + days after my 30th birthday. In fact, John Mc Connell and I had been planning this event since early 2007!. In theory, if the weather was good we would organize a watch from a dark location in the country with as many people as possible and have a fun night, however N. Ireland is famous for it's variable weather and this is what can change a face from smiles to tears.
Unlike the 2007 eclipse which took place during evening hours on a crystal clear Saturday night, the February 21st eclipse was a different entity. With totality taking place at an unsociable hour of the night it would be unlikely that many would even try to watch it in the first place. Only the determined amateur astronomer and photographer would be up for this one. This is what made this event more attractive for me as I prefer the pre-dawn hours which provides the observer with peace and quiet to enjoy the stars in complete detachment from everything else. I had my camera set up on the tripod in the kitchen with 300mm zoom lens ready to grab at a moments notice and two sets of fully charged batteries as back up. My excitement was very controlled though as I had known for days before that the weather situation was far from good. I had spent the entire day and night studying the television weather reports and the more detailed online forecasts with animated satellite images. There was a cold front sweeping in from the Atlantic Ocean from the west which was due to hit on the very night of the eclipse!, this would bring a giant band of cloud and rain across the country for the entire night. I was hoping for a clearing at the post frontal band but the latest forecast destroyed that idea.
It's at times like these when you really get to hear the mind sets of some people. It truly is amazing how easily many people give up with the first mention of cloud and rain. In most cases this attitude is sparked by watching the television forecast from the comfort of a sofa. The idea of actually checking out the window at the real sky seems pointless to these people because they have already sent a clear message to their own brain saying that it's hopeless, so there's no point even trying, so they go to bed early (often with delight) feeling glad that they have a good excuse to stop trying. They feel justified at accepting failure before the very event even takes place. The internal language you use within your own mind is a very powerful tool. By saying negative sentences to yourself (I mean just thinking them!) actually sends a direct message to your body. The mind and body are connected (Iv'e read many Psychology books) so in effect, you are programming your mind and body to fail without even knowing you have done so. I am not one of those people. I heard from some sources that the chances of seeing any of the eclipse from N. Ireland was 0%. I have a more optimistic approach to observing so instead of admitting defeat I decided that I was going to stay up all night anyway and even if I seen a just a glimpse of any stage of the eclipse then I would consider it a success.
There are two reasons for this. The first is obvious, with such dedication I might actually see something, and second, it's the Universal law of cause and effect. I have spent an incredible amount of hours observing the sky over the last decade and I've learned one sure lesson. If you put in enough effort then sooner or later you will be rewarded with something very special from the sky, this reward can take minutes to months (or even years) to arrive but when it does it feels like all your Christmases have arrived at once. This is always my justification for sticking it out.
The Moon was actually visible all evening after sunset but by 21.00 thickening cloud had washed it from the sky. I spent the early part of the night talking with John M Connell over the phone about the eclipse and other astronomical matters then by 00.30 we ended the call. At 00.45 I walked out to the backyard to check the sky. It was raining, it was windy, and it was cloudy, but yet that stratus cloud deck was not that thick. A bright white glow began to form in the clouds revealing the Moon's location high in the SW. Watching carefully I could see the milky disk of the Moon appear with the naked eye. It was a sorry sight with clouds speeding by at high speed and the transparency was so poor that I couldn't even see the lunar 'seas' but yet something was wrong. The disk was not a complete circle and on the SW edge I could see a marked shadow which was the early 'bite' from the Umbral shadow. I couldn't believe it. I had seen at least some of the eclipse now against all odds. I was able to watch it for 15 minutes with the naked eye and through my 10x50mm binos even though the rain was stinging my eyes and splattering on the objective lens of the binos. The cloud thickened again and I was out of action for the time being. I was delighted though, at least I can say I seen the eclipse!.
The rain was heavy now so I returned to the computer and watched the eclipse live on the various webcams across the world which was a delight. I was also updating the website regularly with the latest eclipse images and on my own visual reports. I kept an eye on some of the astro and weather forums to see how others were getting on. After some waiting I decided that I wasn't going to see the eclipse if I stayed indoors so I headed back out. It was still wet, windy and cloudy but on cue the Moon appeared again at 02.25. Now it looked amazing, the umbra had marched a serious distance across the lunar terrain to the extent that it looked like a thick waxing crescent Moon rather than full. On other words, half the Moon was gone!. - this was a wonderful sight and turned out to be my most memorable experience of the night. I watched it for 10 minutes but again, taking images was out of the question due to the weather. I then did a long watch from the backdoor, during this time I must have drank six mugs of tea (brew) while I waited and waited for another glimpse.
I wrapped up warmly and headed outside for good. I walked around to the corner of my house which provided me with the best shelter and a SW view. I watched and waited from 03.00 to 05.00 UT. This was when things became difficult. During totality the Moon got so dark that I could no longer see its glow through the clouds so I had only a vague idea of where it was in the sky taking into account the Earth's rotation. I even swept over the clouds with the 10x50's looking for the disk but it was nowhere to be seen. I did notice a substantial drop in light levels as the Moon was bathed in the Earth's shadow which was quite cool. I leaned up against the tall garden fence and watched. I never took my eye of the sky once. It was raining again and the stratus cloud was now red with reflections as it raced over me from the SW. I was getting cold and I felt myself enter a trance and began day-dreaming. I almost forgot I was outside. This was one of those times when you ask yourself 'why am I doing this?'. I even spent time studying the cloud structure noticing the variations in colour and magnitude, the reflections and shadows, and watched the low hanging scud as it caught my eye drifting over the edge of the visible dome of the sky. At 05.00 UT I seen the bright glow of the Moon again then it was gone. The cloud was thick and showed no signs of clearing so I retired after 05.15 UT. The best of the eclipse was now over.
I was tired but not disappointed. I had seen two lengthy periods of the partial phase which was not expected in the first place. I consider this a success!. Pity I couldn't get any images though, so this is more of written account than anything else. I have a better feeling about later in the year. There's a partial lunar and partial solar eclipse during August 2008 and in my opinion the lunar could be more photogenic than this one due to its low height above the horizon. The next total is in 2010 so I hope the weather gods will be more kind during these events. We shall see when the time comes!...Clear skies.
Martin Mc Kenna