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Total lunar eclipse in western Canada

Andrew Fazekas, astronomer
December 9, 2011 — While the cold may have set in on Earth, the night sky has a couple of hot events in store for sky-watchers this upcoming week.

Watch for a lunar eclipse December 10 (Sky & Telescope)
Watch for a lunar eclipse December 10 (Sky & Telescope)

First up is a total lunar eclipse that will grace the skies of western Canada December 10, early Saturday morning. Sky-watchers east of Lake Superior will be out of luck as the moon will have set by the time the eclipse gets underway. Best seats in the house will be for Alberta and British Columbia where the entire 51 minutes of totality - when the moon turns red - will be visible low in the western sky.

This will be the last total lunar eclipse until April 2014.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon, Earth and Sun line up with usbeing in the middle. During the eclipse, our planet's shadow is projected onto the full Moon, slowly darkening its surface until it's completely covered. With all the traces of direct sunlight gone, the Moon will glow fiery orange for nearly an hour.

If the skies stay clear start looking at 4:45 am PST for the first signs of the Moon's face darkening as Earth's curved shadow creeps over the left side of the moon. Keep watching the Moon get engulfed and you'll notice that the total eclipse really kicks in at 6:06 a.m. when it enter the deepest part of Earth's shadow, and leaves totality at 6:57 a.m. PST.

Earth's own thick atmosphere causes the spectacular colours on the lunar disc. Sunlight shines through our dust filled air, resulting in the Moon glowing reddish the same reason we see the Sun turn red during sunsets. The Moon's colour can vary significantly from one eclipse to the next and nobody can predict what the next one will look like. It all depends on how much dust is floating around in Earth's atmosphere at the time.

Who will have the best view of the eclipse? (Sky & Telescope)
Who will have the best view of the eclipse? (Sky & Telescope)

Coming on the heels of the eclipse is an annual meteor shower that usually doesn't get much fanfare because it occurs under winter-like conditions. But if you are willing to brave the cold temperatures then you may be in for a surprise! The Geminid meteor shower will set the sky ablaze when it peaks overnight on December 13 to 14.

In the light-polluted suburbs observers could see as many as 30 to 50 meteors per hour streaking overhead pending clear skies, of course. In the dark countryside these numbers may rocket up to as many as 100 shooting stars hourly between the hours of 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. the following morning. With the Moon rising around 9 p.m. local times both nights, it's best to look at the Geminids from nightfall until moonrise.

The Geminids arrive when the Earth passes through clouds of debris, causing tons of this cosmic dust to rain down on Earth. Like all meteor showers, it is named after its parent constellation, Gemini, the twins from Greek legends. Gemini rises above the northeastern horizon about 8:00 p.m. in mid-December; however, its worth starting your search for Geminids when Earth begins to encounter the stream of particles as early as December 10 before it reaches its peak intensity in the predawn hours of the14 when our local sky is pointing directly into the Geminid meteor stream.

Best way to catch the shooting star show is to look overhead using just your eyes and remember to bundle up with a blanket and hot chocolate.

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