Blood moon. Supermoon. Wolf moon. The lunar eclipse, beginning the night of Jan. 20, has garnered plenty of descriptors. But the gist is that this Sunday, the Earth will block the sun’s rays from reaching the moon, and it’s likely to look pretty awesome.
WATCH: If you can’t make it to a patch of clear sky, witness the lunar eclipse in the player above, thanks to timeanddate.com. Coverage will begin at 10 p.m. ET.
All of North and South America will be able to see the full eclipse — at least those areas lucky enough to get clear skies. Most of Africa and Europe will catch at least part of the event, but India, China, Australia and all the countries in between will unfortunately miss out on the action.
If you want to watch the eclipse in real life, viewers in the Eastern Standard Time zone can expect to see the eclipse reach totality with the moon high in the sky at 11:41 p.m. and continue for about an hour.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some words people are using to describe this celestial event:
A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth’s shadow passes over the moon. They occur only at full moons. Partial or total lunar eclipses happen up to three times per year and are often visible from a large swath of the planet at a time.
A total lunar eclipse happens when the sun, the Earth and the Earth’s moon are in a nearly straight line, like they will be for the overnight (Jan. 20-21) event. Partial lunar eclipses happen when only some of the moon passes through the shadow that the Earth creates. The third class — penumbral eclipses — are difficult to see. They occur when the moon passes through a larger but less-distinct area of shadow cast by the Earth, blocking only part of the sun.
Image courtesy of NASA
Any lunar eclipse can be called a “blood moon” these days. When the Earth blocks the sun’s direct rays from reflecting off of the moon’s surface, it doesn’t block light that bends and scatters through the Earth’s atmosphere. Basically, the moon during a lunar eclipse is reflecting light from every rosy sunrise or sunset on Earth.
A super blood moon tinted red by scattered light. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
That means that if you were to stand on the moon and look back at the Earth during a lunar eclipse, you’d see a warm orange or red ring around the planet.
The actual color of the “blood moon” will differ depending on atmospheric conditions. Ash from recent volcanic eruptions, for example, could make the moon appear more red.
Read more about “blood moon” myths and the apocalypse-inspired popularity of the term here.
This eclipse has been referred to as a “supermoon.” Because the moon orbits the Earth in an elliptical pattern, it is sometimes closer to the planet and sometimes a bit farther away. A supermoon happens when the moon is at or near perigee — the closest point to Earth in its orbit. This year, there will be three supermoons, but this is the only one to coincide with an eclipse.
The moon at perigee, or closest approach (left), appears 14 percent larger than the moon at apogee, or its farthest distance from Earth (right). Image courtesy of NASA/Goddard/Lunar Reconnaissance orbiter
There’s not a lot of evidence that a “wolf moon” is anything other than a cool name for a moon in January. Some claim it’s a Native American or medieval European tradition, but others consider all of these names for already-astounding lunar eclipses to be, um, unnecessary at best.
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