Eclipse composite by Martin Mc Kenna
On Saturday night March 3/4th observers from all over the globe would get to witness one of the best total lunar eclipses in years - in fact Europe was the best place to be on the planet with the entire event from beginning to end visible high in the sky. I had been looking forward to the eclipse for months and like everyone else I was apprehensive about clouds in this country however I had a feeling it would be crystal clear. Only two days before the main night we were graced by wonderful clear skies on March 1/2nd when I got an unobstructed telescopic view of the Moon - Saturn conjunction (Image) which took place at 02.30 in the morning under a dusting of light frost. (Report). The weather for the weekend was looking promising, the television, radio and newspapers were full of information about the eclipse so a combination of tension and excitement was mounting.
The last lunar eclipse I witnessed was on September 7th 2006 when we observed the stunning partially eclipsed Moon climbing over the eastern horizon looking bigger than normal due to the Moon illusion effect (Image). Previous total eclipse's were covered by cloud although I did see one back in 2000 which I filmed with my camcorder from the back garden of my old home. My first total lunar eclipse was an unforgettable experience: when I was very young my dad quietly awoke me from my sleep late in the night. His job as a conservation officer required him to monitor the shore of Lough Neagh to watch for poachers setting illegal nets in the area. He had been tipped off in advance so he assembled a team together to observe, gather evidence and apprehend the poachers which would lead to a court case followed by prosecution. I was invited to come along! - what young boy would pass up the opportunity to go on a 'mission' late in the night when everyone else was asleep? it sounded like the perfect adventure.
In the early hours of the morning we stealthy crossed fields and took up position behind a large bush along the shore of the Lough which could be heard gently splashing against the rocks. We crouched in silence - watching and listening carefully. I recall hearing a strange buzzing sound above my head which forced me to look skyward, it was a huge dragon fly with giant wings beating like some miniature chopper as it passed my zenith heading to the right. My eyes followed it then I caught site of something else. High in the sky was a very eerie sight - the full Moon was an unbelievable blood red colour!!! It was a total lunar eclipse! - the first I had ever seen. The night ended with a high speed car chase along narrow country roads which were bathed in the crimson light of the blood red Moon. I shall never forget it and ever since I have made every effort to observe all future eclipses which occurred over Europe.
Saturday March 3rd was a glorious sunny and crisp day. I had already made arrangements with a few observers and we planned to meet outside my home at 20.45 then we would head to the 528 metre high summit on Slieve Gallion within the Sperrin Mountain range to watch the full show. Before sunset a glorious, colourful 22 degree sun halo appeared with a brilliant 22 degree eastern sundog (mock sun) sporting striking white and yellow colours.
After 18.00 I watched the clean white disk of the full Moon rise low in the NE from my bedroom window which looked a very peaceful sight near a distant roof top. A lazy strip of transparent cloud drifted across its disk which added to the atmospheric seen.
I placed the batteries inside my camera which had been
charging for 10 hours then packed my gear into my ruck sack: FujiS5600 5.1MP camera, two tripods, ETX 90mm telescope, folding chair, 10X50mm binoculars and a flask of tea. I rested for a while then wrapped up warmly and began observing the Moon from 20.00 from the back yard while I waited for everyone to arrive. The fainter Penumbra ('P') would begin its trek across the Moon at 20.18 so I wanted to see if I could detect this elusive section of the Earth's shadow - no luck yet.
At 20.30 Conor Mc Donald and his girl friend Ciara arrived followed shortly after by Stephen Mc Govern and Jonathan Bingham. The five of us split up into three cars then drove out the road on the 25 minute journey to Slieve Gallion. At 21.00 Stephen and I could see the penumbra as a grey shading on the Moon's lower left hand edge through the car wind screen which became more distinct by the minute. We drove up the curving steep roads along the circumference of the mountain climbing higher and higher in altitude. Stephen felt his ears pop and I felt a strange sensation in my stomach due to the change in pressure. We arrived at the very top of the mountain at 21.15 and stopped the cars nose to nose along a narrow road. Close by was the tower with its two distinctive red lights which I could see from my home every night I was out observing, it felt strange to be up here now.
click to view full image.
We quickly set up our gear and immediately began taking images. The sky and the panoramic view was impressive however there was a strong cold wind which combined with the frost made for a brutal wind chill factor so we had to crouch down behind the cars to get some shelter to avoid camera shake. Even here the camera shook somewhat which made it an extreme challenge to get a good sharply focused image.
On cue at 21.30 the Umbra made first contact with the Moon's disk. This part of the Earth's shadow looked jet black at the time and visually it looked like someone had cut off the edge of the disk with a knife. From here on time seemed to go in very fast indeed. The Umbra seemed to race across the Moon at an alarming speed to the extent that you could almost see it move in real time with the naked eye!
The bite on the Moon grew larger and larger. Even at this early stage we could already see the Umbra turn a pink - red hue without optical aid. Rather than jet black it looked like a very faint Earthshine as the dark edge of the disk could be seen visually. The Moon formed a last quarter phase and in no time totality was nearing.
It was only minutes from totality and most of the Moon as covered with a strong red tone with a darker patch at the centre. Through Stephen's 4" Celestron reflector we watched the Umbra creep across the huge impact craters in real time which got us talking about what one would see around the Earth during an eclipse if we observed the event from the Moon's surface. At one stage the northern edge of the Umbra turned a vivid white - blue colour which was seen with the naked eye however was striking through the scope.
We watched as the thin white strip on the Moon's northern limb shrunk smaller and smaller until it stopped shrinking altogether. It then changed into a yellow - golden crown while the rest of the Moon was a dark red. Totality! Stephen and I checked through the pages of Sky & Night magazine to decided on the Danjon value of the eclipse. We found it difficult to pick between a value of 2 and 3 but eventually settled for 3 - A fairly dark eclipse.
When we looked at the sky above us we were amazed - the sky was pitch black with stars to magnitude +6.5 in view at the zenith and M31, M44, Double cluster etc were easy naked eye targets. The Milky Way with subtle dark dust lanes could be seen arching up from the north which was an incredible sight. This was the first time any of us had seen the Milky Way during a full Moon. It was beautiful!
Visually the Moon was amazing as it seemed to hang among the star fields of Leo some 43 degrees above the horizon. At one stage the Moon was so dark that I could not find it on my camera's LCD screen without zooming in knowing EXACTLY where to look. I ended up taking perhaps 150 images and filled my memory card so I had to delete quite a few of the poor images to save room. By this stage we were bitterly cold, I could no longer feel my fingers due to continuous use of the metal buttons on my camera and eventually I had to stop taking images as I could no longer feel the buttons at all.
Conor played some music from his car's CD player and several times we had to sit inside with a cup of tea to bring some life back into our hands. Jonathan set up his BBQ and cooked use some delicious burgers which revived our energy.
Totality seemed to last a long time so we took countless images and had plenty of time to just stand and stare at the beautiful scene. We had done well to choose this location, in one hand it was harsh and the quality of our images was sacrificed however on the other hand we got the most amazing visual experience from this high altitude location. The darkness of the sky would have been unmatched at ground level. This mountain must have witnessed hundreds of eclipses and other spectacular transient phenomena during the millions of years it has existed and as a group standing on its peak it felt very special to belong to this one. I wonder who will be standing on this mountain eclipse watching in another million years?
As the Umbra began to move westward a lovely golden - yellow crescent could be seen on the Moon's left edge. The intensity and colours were changing by the minute! After some time we decided to descend the mountain and reach ground level. Driving down the dark frosty road was slow going but eventually we reached the bottom where the frost was lighter. Conor drove off to another location and the rest of us went back to my home where we set up our cameras again to capture the final stages of the eclipse. The Umbra left the Moon at 01.11 then Stephen drove home. Jonathan and I relocated to my backyard to watch the final stages of the Penumbra fade away until finally the Moon returned to normal. The night was a resounding success, we seen the entire eclipse from beginning to end under crystal clear skies and more importantly I got the visual experience and memory which I was after.
We all had a great time. Jonathan, Leontia (my sister), Benson (my dog) and I then went for a three mile walk through the countryside under a bright 22 degree Moon halo. The night was bright blue and the frost was lit brightly by the full eclipse free Moon. The night was a joy to be under. I would like to thank everyone for coming down and making the eclipse such a wonderful experience. I didn't get to bed until 05.00 UT.
I had only one gribe with the evening and that is that my good friend and prolific Moon observer John Mc Connell could not make it to the event due to a nasty flu which left him bed ridden for days. However this did not dampen John's fifty years of enthusiasm for the sky. He informed me the following day that he watched the eclipse through his double glazed window while shivering with fever. The properties of the glass produced three eclipsed Moon's on the pane. He said.. 'while you where on a 1700ft mountain watching one eclispe...I got three for the price of one!'
The next lunar eclipse will be in february 2008 before dawn and we are already planing where we will be! - until then...clear skies
Martin Mc Kenna