Kurt Bayer

Kurt Bayer is an APNZ reporter based in Christchurch.

Double chance to see a lunar eclipse

Kiwis are in for an astronomical treat in April and October next year

The lunar eclipse will be quite eerie with the moon looking like a dim red disc, says an expert. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The lunar eclipse will be quite eerie with the moon looking like a dim red disc, says an expert. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It is one of the world's most spectacular sights - the Earth passing between the moon and the sun, casting a red glow on the moon.

The infrequent lunar light extravaganza will be experienced twice next year, with two total eclipses set to grace our skies.

The last lunar eclipse visible from New Zealand was in 2011, so large crowds are expected to gather and gaze skywards together.

"I've seen many total lunar eclipses over the years, and I still very much enjoy them," said Dr Grant Christie, honorary astronomer at Stardome Observatory at Auckland's One Tree Hill.

"It can be quite a social experience to share with a large group of people."

In a lunar eclipse, the moon is obscured as it passes through the Earth's shadow.

Two shadows will cross the moon during the event - the large penumbra (or "almost-shadow"), which dims the moon, and the umbra, a smaller opaque shadow caused by the Earth blocking out the light from the sun to the moon.

The first total lunar eclipse will be in the late afternoon and early evening of April 15.

Astronomers say it will be a particularly special event because it will start soon after the sun sets.

Partial eclipse will begin about 6pm, and the moon will be completely within the Earth's shadow by just after 7pm - about 15 degrees above the horizon.

The best vantage point to view it will be on any eastern beach.

"The eclipse will already be under way when the sun is setting," said Dr Christie. The full eclipse will last for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

"It will be quite low down when it's in totality, so observers will need a clear eastern horizon. The ideal place would be an east coast beach, on either island, looking across the sea."

The second eclipse will start late on October 8, and the full eclipse will span midnight.

While it comes at a later, more unsociable hour, it will be higher in the sky than the April event and more visible for more areas, Dr Christie said.

The best way to view it, other than simply with the naked eye, is through a telescope or binoculars, he said.

Clear skies are hoped for, but as the event lasts for several hours, from partial eclipse beginning, to its ending, passing cloud cover won't hinder the experience.

And the further away from artificial light - cities and their street lights - the clearer the view will be.

"But you'll see it from anywhere, even downtown where the moon would look like a dim red disc, quite eerie and unusual. Different places will get different experiences from it," said Dr Christie.

The University of Canterbury's Mt John Observatory resident superintendent, Alan Gilmore, said the April 15 event would be a "significant eclipse" for New Zealand.

"The full moon will rise at sunset already in the outer part of Earth's shadow, the penumbra. So it will look a little darker on its lower edge. It will move into Earth's central shadow, the umbra, over the next hour. By 7:06pm the moon will be fully in Earth's shadow."

Mr Gilmore said New Zealanders would be able to see the whole of the October 8 eclipse with the moon roughly due north when it was most eclipsed.

"The moon begins to enter the penumbra at 9:14pm. It begins to enter the umbra at 10:15 and is fully eclipsed by 11:25. It starts to leave the umbra at 12:25am and is fully out of the central shadow by 1:35."

The president of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, Gordon Hudson, , said his organisation wouldn't be holding any events, but local astronomical societies would be doing their own thing throughout the country.

Two solar eclipses will occur next year, but neither will be visible from New Zealand.

When, where to watch

Total lunar eclipse - April 15, 2014

• Penumbral eclipse begins: 4.55pm

• Partial eclipse begins: 5.59pm

• Full eclipse begins: 7.08pm

• Maximum eclipse: 7.46pm

• Full eclipse ends: 8.23pm

• Partial eclipse ends: 9.32pm

• Penumbral eclipse ends: 10.36pm

Total lunar eclipse - October 8/9, 2014

• Penumbral eclipse begins: 9.17pm

• Partial eclipse begins: 10.18pm

• Full eclipse begins: 11.27pm

• Maximum eclipse: 11.55pm

• Full eclipse ends: 12.22am

• Partial eclipse ends: 1.32am

• Penumbral eclipse ends: 2.32am

Best sightings

• The first eclipse will be best seen from eastern beaches.

• The second eclipse will be visible all over New Zealand.

• They can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars or telescopes will improve the view.

• Contact your local astronomical society or club for viewing details.

• In Auckland, the Stardome Observatory will be open for both events.

Other astronomical highlights in 2014

April 14: Close encounter with Mars.

The red planet will be the closest it has been to Earth for two years - 93 million km away.

The University of Canterbury's Mt John Observatory resident superintendent, Alan Gilmore, said Mars would be a bright red "star" low in the eastern sky at dusk.

"It is due north, midway up the sky, at midnight and sets due west at dawn. Mars will still be small in a telescope - only one-third the size of Jupiter [the bright 'star' in the western evening sky in April]."

May 5: Peak viewing night for the eta-Aquarid meteors, which are dust from the Comet Halley.

Mr Gilmore said this would be most visible just before dawn when one might see 30 meteors in an hour.

"There is no moon in the morning sky on May 5-6, so viewing conditions are ideal."

July 3-August 15: Alpha-Capricornids meteor shower.

These meteors are so bright they are sometimes called fireballs.

Mr Gilmore said these were bright meteors but not numerous; five an hour at maximum.

"Best looked for in the late night and morning sky."

November 14-21: The often spectacular Leonids meteor shower.

Leonids meteor shower can produce high numbers of streaking "shooting stars".

Mr Gilmore said that this shower peaks at 33-year intervals when the comet that produces the dust passes near the sun. It last peaked around 1999 but was "pretty tame" now, he said. Meteors would appear to radiate from the northeast and cross much of the sky.

December 15: The Geminid meteor shower.

Mr Gilmore said meteors would begin radiating from the northeast about midnight and one might see 20 meteors an hour from New Zealand.

There would be a last-quarter moon in the morning sky which would hide the fainter meteors.

Source: Stardome's New Zealand Astronomical Yearbook 2014

- additional reporting by Matthew Theunissen

- APNZ

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 24 Jul 2014 15:13:08 Processing Time: 647ms