Spring is in the air, and a young astronomer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of observing.
I always look forward to the May/June issue of SkyNews. There’s something about browsing Christine Kulyk’s annual Star Party Calendar (on page 34) that gets the observing juices flowing. Needless to say, the steadily improving weather helps too. Anticipating the enjoyment that lies ahead goes hand in hand with fondly recollecting what came before. For me, the January 20 total lunar eclipse stands out with particular vividness because I didn’t think I was going to be able to view it.
The problem, of course, was the weather. I recognize that winter in the southern interior of British Columbia, where I live, isn’t nearly as menacing as in other parts of the country. Many of the eclipse reports we received from observers in the Prairies and eastern Canada included horrific tales of bone-chilling cold and brutally powerful winds. Those intrepid souls who ventured out on eclipse night despite the life threatening conditions have my greatest admiration and respect! Most of us here in British Columbia usually escape the icy embrace of the dreaded Polar Vortex. Instead, our nemesis is pervasive overcast. It’s no joke—in winter, we can (and do!) go weeks without seeing a single star.
As eclipse day progressed, the sky remained completely overcast. Indeed, the outlook had been so bleak all week, I was convinced it wasn’t worth setting up my scope. And yet there was a tiny glimmer of hope in the latest forecast—clearing was expected, though not until well after the eclipse was over. In the afternoon, I put the gear outside to cool down “just in case.” After dinner, as the sky darkened, I looked to the east for any sign of the rising full Moon. To my surprise, I could detect it. Sort of. It was merely an ill-defined bright patch in the cloud cover. Better than nothing, I thought. The situation had upgraded marginally from “hopeless” to “very unlikely.”
Throughout the early evening, I slipped outside every 10 minutes or so to monitor conditions. Sure enough, things became less dire—as the penumbral phase of the eclipse got under way, the Moon slowly improved from a luminous blob to a fuzzy disc, and some parts of the sky were beginning to look distinctly patchy. Hope turned into a kind of guarded excitement. Ten minutes later, the lunar disc was sufficiently distinct that I could almost make out the dark maria regions. Good enough! I pulled the cover off the scope thinking that if things went well, I might be able to get some “arty” photos of a hazy, red Moon.
Remarkably, just before the lunar disc touched the darkest region of the Earth’s shadow—the umbra—the clouds seemed to give up their attempt to ruin the eclipse and quickly dissipated. With one exception: A persistent streak remained stubbornly parked in front of the Moon as if piloted by some malevolent, anti-astronomer intelligence. It really was a remarkable thing to witness. I admit, some curse words were uttered. Then more. They say getting angry never solves anything, but this time, it seemed to do the trick—the recalcitrant cloud faded away just as the last bit of bright Moon slipped into the umbral shadow.
Amazingly, the rest of the eclipse was clear sailing. I snapped away happily as the Moon progressed deeper and deeper into the Earth’s shadow. About half an hour after the start of totality, our satellite transformed into a dark, rusty brown disc floating amid the stars of western Cancer. I could scarcely believe my good fortune. Another half hour later, totality came to an end with surprising swiftness. As the first sliver of silvery Moon emerged from the umbra, I thought, wow—I got to see the entire span of totality! Whodathunkit?
While it’s true this full-Moon fade-out didn’t generate the same level of euphoria for me as the August 2017 total solar eclipse, I was perhaps a touch more appreciative because the outcome seemed so much less certain. And let’s be honest—when it comes to winter observing in Canada, you have to be grateful for what you get. And sometimes—not often, but sometimes—you get more than you have any right to expect. That said, I’m glad our next total lunar eclipse (in 2022) occurs in May. You don’t want to push your luck more than absolutely necessary.
Plus it’s not polite to swear.