The Internal Revenue Service may be preparing to bleed some of us on Tax Day, but that’s no match for what Earth has in store for its little sibling. At about 2 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Tuesday April 15, the moon will cruise through Earth’s shadow, which will turn it blood red.
The moon will be full when it does this, forming a total lunar eclipse in the depths of the velvet night. The reason for the red lies in tricks played by Earth’s atmosphere, as Earthsky.org explains.
First, Earth’s shadow “will appear dark, like a bite taken out of a cookie, until the shadow completely covers the moon,” Earthsky.org reports. But then, “when the moon is submerged in Earth’s shadow, there is circular ring around Earth—the ring of our atmosphere—through which the sun’s rays pass.”
For various reasons, all but the red light gets filtered out of the spectrum, and there you have it. Instead of a black shadow rendering the moon invisible, “Thanks to Earth’s atmosphere, what actually happens is much more subtle and beautiful,” Earthsky.com says.
The spectacular sight will be visible to all of Turtle Island, for more than an hour. Moreover, this is just the first of four total lunar eclipses, NASA says. There will be another later this year, on October 8, then another next April 4, 2015, followed by the fourth, on September 28, 2015. This is the first total lunar eclipse since 2011.
“The most unique thing about the 2014–2015 tetrad is that all of them are visible for all or parts of the USA,” said eclipse expert Fred Espenak in a statement from NASA. Below, the tetrad is explained.
This may be a cause for concern among some Indigenous Peoples, since eclipses are traditionally seen as portents of evil in many cultures. In at least one instance, the “blood moon” is associated with actual bloodshed. In 1504, Christopher Columbus notoriously consulted an almanac he had handy in order to predict a lunar eclipse and subdue a local Native population on the island of what is today known as Jamaica.
The Native peoples of Jamaica had grown tired of supporting Columbus’s stranded party—his vessels had been devoured by shipworm and were no longer seaworthy—and of being taken advantage of, then robbed and even murdered, when the crew mutinied. Fed up, they threatened to stop providing the Europeans with food and other provisions. Columbus took advantage of his knowledge of an impending total lunar eclipse and warned the local people that “his Christian god was angry with his people for no longer supplying Columbus and his men with food,” Space.com recounts. “Therefore, he was about to provide a clear sign of his displeasure: Three nights hence, he would all but obliterate the rising full moon, making it appear ‘inflamed with wrath,’ which would signify the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them.”
Sure enough, three days later the moon turned deep red just after sunset, almost before it had time to rise. Columbus milked the moment, even pretending that he was the one who was allowing the moon back after the local people agreed to accede to his demands.
“They then kept Columbus and his men well supplied and well fed until a relief caravel from Hispaniola finally arrived on June 29, 1504,” Space.com said, noting that Columbus did not depart for Spain until November 7 of that year.
In truth though, one never knows what exact color a lunar eclipse will take, according to National Geographic.
“The moon’s color during totality can vary considerably depending on the amount of dust in the Earth’s atmosphere at the time,” National Geographic tells us. “Active volcanoes spewing tons of ash into the upper atmosphere, for instance, can trigger blood-red eclipses. No one can predict exactly what color we’ll see before each eclipse.”
The redness of the moon is echoed in that of Mars, which makes its closest approach to Mother Earth at about the same time. The Red Planet and its ruddy hues will not be far from the moon.
Before the moon makes it to Earth’s actual shadow, it will dim a little as it passes through the penumbral shadow of the earth. But that will be faint compared to the real thing.
“The total part of the April 14-15 eclipse lasts nearly 1.3 hours,” Earthsky.org tells us. “A partial umbral eclipse precedes totality by over an hour, and follows totality by over an hour, so the moon takes a little more than 3.5 hours to completely sweep through the Earth’s dark shadow on the night of April 14-15. North and South America, plus islands of the Pacific (such as Hawaii) are in the best position worldwide to watch the total eclipse of the moon on the night of April 14-15.”
Those who are blocked by time constraints or clouds can catch the phenomenon online at the Slooh Space Camera.