If you have looked to the southwest just after sunset in the past month, you probably saw two bright stars that have been moving closer to each other. They are not stars. They are the planets Jupiter and Saturn, two of the brightest objects in the sky, reaching a planetary conjunction for the winter solstice.
In their orbits around the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn appear to pass each other about every 20 years. However, the last time they appeared this close was in 1623, just 13 years after Galileo first pointed his telescope into the night sky and discovered four moons of Jupiter and saw Saturn’s rings. On December 21, those two planets will appear only one-tenth of a degree apart. That is one-fifth the diameter of the full moon.
You can bet that there will be hucksters making connections between this very unusual astronomical event and the star of Bethlehem or various political events. This conjunction is not part of a doomsday scenario but a demonstration of the accuracy of scientific observation. We can predict planetary conjunctions or solar and lunar eclipses to the minute, which is not hard to do.
When I taught earth science using the Earth Science Curriculum Project, we did a lab where the students predicted an eclipse of the Sun. They predicted when it would begin, when it would reach totality, and when it would end. I tried to make this a school-wide event, and the principal permitted me to take all 1000 students onto the school lawn to witness the eclipse. We gave the students special glasses and set up our telescopes to observe the eclipse.
We told the students what was going to happen and when it would happen. When it started, and the sky got dark, dogs began to howl. Crescents appeared on the ground under the trees as the eclipse projected through spaces in the leaves. Even though we had told the students what would happen, some kids began crying and ran back into the building in fear.
Why do people lack trust in scientific information, whether it concerns an eclipse, planetary movements, climate change, or COVID-19? Science and the Bible are friends, and God has called us to look at the creation around us and learn from it. Proverbs 8, Romans 1:19-20, and Matthew 6:25-33 all remind us of science and faith’s symbiotic relationship.
Tomorrow we will consider this planetary conjunction and the star of Bethlehem.
Many of us missed the super blue blood moon lunar eclipse this morning. We may have missed it either because of weather (clouds) or because it wasn’t complete in the part of the world where we live. So did we miss seeing a rare phenomenon?
A total lunar eclipse happens about once every year-and-a-half, but this one was special. An eclipse like the one this morning has not happened in North America in the last CENTURY-and-a-half. (Yesterday we explained what a super blue blood moon is.) The last time there was a supermoon total eclipse in North America was in 2015. A blue moon lunar eclipse last occurred in 1982. But the last time that North America saw a total eclipse of a blue supermoon was in 1866. Unfortunately for most of us in North America, this morning’s eclipse happened at or near the setting of the Moon, so we could only see part of it at best. In addition to that, much of central North America was cloudy.
Watching a lunar eclipse can be fascinating, but what is special about the Moon? Compared to the moons of other planets in our solar system, our moon is larger in relation to planet Earth. The size of the Moon and it’s distance from the Earth makes total SOLAR eclipses possible, but we have examined that before. The size of the Moon and its distance from Earth puts it in tidal lock with the Earth. What that means is that the same side of the Moon is always facing the Earth. We see only one side of the Moon every night year-after-year.
What is our Moon good for except to look at? The truth is that without the Moon, Earth would be a much more hostile place to live. The gravity of the Moon creates the ocean tides which clean the bays and estuaries essential for many plants, animals, and birds. The gravity of the moon has slowed and stabilized the Earth’s rotation and tilt, shaping the life-cycles of plants and animals and determining our wind patterns and weather. The Moon reflects the light of the Sun to give a night light essential for many forms of life.
As most people know, tomorrow morning (January 31) before sunrise there will be a total eclipse of the Moon. It will not be an ordinary lunar eclipse because it will be a Super Blue Blood Moon. What does that mean?
It’s called “super” because the Moon is at perigee. That means the Moon is at its closest point to the Earth. The Moon’s orbit of Earth is somewhat elliptical so at times it is farther away, and sometimes it’s closer. At the closest point, it is somewhat larger and brighter than when it is at its farthest point, called apogee.
What about the “blue?” One thing for sure, the Moon won’t look blue. This will be the second full moon during January. Two full moons during one month don’t happen very often, only “once in a blue moon” as the saying goes. When we do have two in one month, the second full moon is called a “blue moon.”
Why is it called a “blood moon?” That’s because during a total lunar eclipse the Moon looks red. A lunar eclipse happens when Earth’s shadow blocks the Sun’s light from the Moon. Lunar eclipses only happen when the Moon is at its “full” stage because that is when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. Only when the Moon, Earth, and Sun line-up perfectly does Earth’s shadow block the Sun’s light from reaching the Moon. However, even during a total eclipse some of the light from the Sun is bent by the Earth’s atmosphere enough that it reaches the Moon’s surface. The bending occurs mostly in the red end of the visible spectrum, so some red light reaches the Moon, and we see that red light reflected back to us. It’s the same red effect we see at sunrise and sunset.
So that’s how we can have a Super Blue Blood Moon. If you want to know when you can see the eclipse in your area, there are many websites that give that information such as NASA.gov.
The total solar eclipse of 2017 is now history. If you were in the United States, you probably saw at least a partial eclipse. If you missed the totality, you will have another chance in about seven years. The next total solar eclipse visible in North America will be on April 8, 2024.
The eclipse of 2024 will travel from south to north. After traveling across Mexico, it will cross the US border in Texas. It will travel northeast to follow the length of Lake Erie. Then it will skirt southern Canada and northern New England. It will leave the United States when it crosses Maine before crossing New Brunswick and Newfoundland and disappearing in the North Atlantic. Major US cities within the band of totality will include Dallas/Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Although the 2017 eclipse was total for only about 2.5 minutes, the 2024 eclipse will last about 4 minutes in totality. You can get more details about it here.
However, the eclipse of 2024 will not be the next total solar eclipse in the world. Before 2024 there will be other total solar eclipses and partial eclipses in other parts of the world. You can find information about upcoming solar eclipses here and here. You will see the dates and times for solar eclipses up to the year 3000!
By now everyone should know that there will be a total solar eclipse across the United States tomorrow. We have been writing about it in our posts for the past week. Please go back to any of them for more information. We hope that everyone knows that eclipses are not omens of some mysterious event. They are a natural phenomenon of the solar system that God designed.
The first written record of a total solar eclipse was in China in the year 2134 B.C. Apparently, that eclipse took everyone by surprise because two royal astrologers who failed to predict it, were beheaded for their crime. Since that time, people have often interpreted eclipses as omens or signs from God (or the gods) of some impending disaster. Human history has many instances of people interpreting an eclipse as a sign that something, usually bad, was about to happen. That is superstition and is not supported by the facts.
In recent years some Christians have declared eclipses, comets, or celestial alignments to be a sign that Christ is about to return or that God was about to send judgment on a nation. There have already been such claims about the total solar eclipse of 2017. That is both untrue and counterproductive for the Christian faith.
If you hear anyone saying that this eclipse is a sign of God’s judgment or Christ’s return, don’t believe it. Jesus made it clear that nobody knows when He will return. (Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32) We should always be prepared for Christ’s return because we can’t predict when it will be. It may be today, or it may not be in our lifetimes. Just remember that eclipses are not omens and neither are any other natural events.
On August 21 people across North America will have a unique opportunity to see a total solar eclipse. It is a very rare event, and especially rare to have so much of the United States involved. The experience itself is worth a considerable drive if you don’t live in a zone of totality.
The Moon is just the right size to cover the Sun. That means that the shadow of the Moon will fall on a small area of the Earth. Normally the bright photosphere of the Sun overpowers everything else. In a total eclipse of the Sun, the photosphere is covered, and you can see the outer atmosphere of the Sun called the corona. When light from the photosphere shines through a valley on the Moon just before and after totality, a blast of bright light appears to viewers on Earth. It looks like a huge diamond ring.
The sky is not the only place where strange things happen. We enjoyed a partial eclipse when I taught astronomy at Riley High School in South Bend, Indiana. We made a point of telling our 1600-member student body what was going to happen. We set up our telescopes and pin-hole cameras to project the event onto poster board. The principal allowed the whole student body to gather in front of the school.
When the eclipse started, there was the usual teenage horsing around as the Moon began to cover the Sun. All of a sudden the kids got very quiet as it became noticeably darker and you could feel the air become cooler. Dogs started howling as the eclipse progressed. Leaves in the maple tree in front of the school projected small pin-hole images on the sidewalk of the Sun with a chunk missing. We even had a few kids who became disturbed by what was happening. This was not a total solar eclipse, but just a partial eclipse which didn’t cover the entire Sun. Those who live near the path of totality will have the rare experience of seeing complete coverage of the Sun and darkness in the middle of the day.
It is amazing that our solar system is designed in such an incredible way that even high school students with a knowledge of math and astronomy can predict when the eclipse will start, reach totality, and end. The fact that the Moon is just the right size to cover the Sun is remarkable. In the past, humans believed that eclipses were the prognosticators of a coming disaster. For us, the total solar eclipse is simply a wonderful display of the precision and design built into our solar system and the fact that we can understand what God has done by studying the events that we see in the sky.