Upcoming Rare Total Eclipse
February 14, 2008
A total eclipse of the Moon will occur on Wednesday, February 20, 2008. The entire event will be visible from South America and most of North America (on Feb. 20) as well as western Europe, Africa, and western Asia (on Feb. 21). During a total lunar eclipse, the Moon's disk can take on a dramatically colorful appearance from bright orange to blood red to dark brown and (rarely) very dark gray.
An eclipse of the Moon can only take place at full Moon, and only if the Moon passes through some portion of Earth's shadow. The shadow is actually composed of two cone-shaped parts, one nested inside the other. The outer shadow, or penumbra, is a zone where Earth blocks some (but not all) of the Sun's rays. In contrast, the inner shadow, or umbra, is a region where Earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the Moon, thereby causing a total eclipse of the Moon.
From start to finish, February's lunar eclipse will last about three hours and twenty-six minutes (not including the penumbral phases, which are very difficult to see). The partial eclipse begins as the Moon's eastern edge slowly moves into Earth's umbra shadow. During the partial phases, it takes just over an hour for the Moon's orbital motion to carry it entirely within the Earth's dark umbra. The color and brightness of the totally eclipsed Moon can vary considerably from one eclipse to another. Dark eclipses are caused by volcanic gas and dust, which filters and blocks much of the Sun's light from reaching the Moon. But since no major volcanic eruptions have recently taken place, the Moon will probably take on a vivid red or orange color during the total phase. After the total phase ends, it is once again followed by a partial eclipse as the Moon gradually leaves the umbra shadow.
The total phase of a lunar eclipse is called totality. At this time, the Moon is completely immersed within Earth's dark umbra shadow. During the February 20 eclipse, totality will last just under 50 minutes.
During the five-millennium period from 2000 BC through AD 3000, there have been 7718 eclipses of the Moon (including both partial and total eclipses). Generally, up to three lunar eclipses (partial or total) occur each year. The last time that three total lunar eclipses occurred in one calendar year was in 1982. The last total lunar eclipse visible from the entire continental United States occurred on August 28, 2007. North Americans will have their next opportunity to see a total lunar eclipse on December 21, 2010.
In honor of this event, the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Family Space Day program is hosting a special viewing on Wednesday, February 20, from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Children ages 5 and older are invited to bring their parents to come out and view this rare event along with members of the JSC Astronomical Society. Five special telescopes will allow an up-close view of the eclipse, and a variety of hands-on activities for the children will be available, including “Oreo Moon Phases” and “Moon Stories.”
For more information about lunar eclipses, visit
For more information about Family Space Day and other education activities, visit
Last updated February 14, 2008