February 2008 lunar eclipse (credit: Jayme Hanzak)

The next time the Moon is full, it will pass into the Earth’s shadow, causing a total lunar eclipse. The action happens early Tuesday morning, December 21, 2010, between 1:33 and 5:01 a.m. Totality is from 2:41 to 3:53 a.m. (All times Eastern.)

So seeing it probably means inconveniencing yourself unless you work the night shift or will be in another time zone. (Lucky folks on the West Coast, for example, get to subtract three hours from all the times above.) If the skies are clear enough, here’s why it is worth losing sleep to see the eclipse:

1) You will see the Moon turn a weird color.

When the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, rather than disappearing altogether, it will probably turn red. Or maybe orange, or gray, or brown. The Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight and sends it into the Earth’s shadow, so in effect you see light from all the sunrises and sunsets on Earth. The exact color of the Moon depends on what’s in our atmosphere as well as how deeply into the darkest part of the shadow the Moon passes.

2) You can prove to yourself the Earth is round.

When the eclipse is in a partial phase, you can see that the Earth’s shadow is curved.

3) You can imagine a ferocious dog taking a bite out of the Moon.

According to a Korean myth, a lunar eclipse happens when a king’s “fire dog” attempts to steal the Moon and bring its light to the Land of Darkness. When this huge, fierce dog bites into the Moon he finds it painfully cold. His mouth freezing and his teeth singing with pain, the dog then spits out the Moon.

4) You haven’t gotten to see a total lunar eclipse in nearly 3 years.

The night of February 20-21, 2008, was the most recent total eclipse of the Moon visible from anywhere on Earth.

5) …and you may have missed that eclipse anyway.

That week I was presenting a stargazing seminar for public school teachers at the Ocracoke campus of the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, where I remember good views of the eclipse. But members of the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) reported cloud cover during the early stages.

6) …and your NEXT chance to see a total lunar eclipse from here won’t be until April 2014.

And its timing during the night isn’t any more convenient for the East coast than this Dec. 21 eclipse, so don’t wait for that reason.

To witness a simulation of the eclipse with no loss of sleep, and to learn more Moon-related stuff, please join me at the Moon Myths planetarium program:

  • A 90-minute version designed for adults and teens happens this Wednesday, Dec. 15, from 7:30-9:00 p.m. In addition to spending time under the planetarium sky, we’ll do a hands-on “moon dance” (no actual dancing required) to explore how the Moon’s orbit is related to phases and eclipses. And if the weather permits, we’ll spend a few minutes outside looking at the real thing through a telescope.

Register for either program at the Morehead Web site.

Amy Sayle is setting an alarm to catch the lunar eclipse.

Geminid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini the Twins. (Credit: International Astronomical Union, Sky & Telescope)

The Geminid meteor shower peaks the night of December 13-14, providing its annual cosmic light show. Alas, our current forecast predicts temperatures dropping toward the teens that night. Here’s why it’s worth freezing yourself* to view the meteors (assuming you have reasonably clear skies):

1) The Geminid meteor shower is strong and reliable.

It’s actually already happening. The shower is active from December 4-16, with the peak on Tuesday morning, December 14.

2) You can watch the sky act out a mythological story.

The streaks of light you’ll see (also called, confusingly, “shooting stars”) result from debris from a rocky object called 3200 Phaethon. In Greek mythology, Phaethon’s disastrous attempt to drive the Sun chariot across the sky resulted in Zeus (Jupiter) hurling a lightning bolt that caused Phaethon to tumble out of the chariot “like a shooting star.” In addition to seeing meteors streaking through the sky and imagining Phaethon’s last ride, you will also see Jupiter—the planet, that is—if you are out before midnight. But let’s hope for no lightning bolts.

3) You don’t have to wake up insanely early.

Unlike most meteor showers, which require going outside at what most of us consider a ridiculous hour, the Geminids are worth looking for anytime after about 9 p.m. (Monday, Dec. 13). At that time you will also see Jupiter and the waxing gibbous Moon appearing close together—a lovely sight, though that moonlight may prevent you from seeing fainter meteors.

4) If you’re willing to go out to a dark site after midnight (early morning Tuesday, Dec. 14), you may see roughly a meteor or more per minute.

The single best hour is likely to be centered around 2 a.m. The Moon will have set, and high in the sky will be the radiant—the point in the constellation Gemini from which Geminid meteors appear to originate. Around that time, meteors will appear to fall down in all directions. To see the most meteors, you need a sky free from light pollution. Seek an open view as far away from city lights as you can.

5) All you need are your eyes. And warm clothes.

Do give your eyes at least ten minutes to adjust to the dark. You do not need to know how to identify the constellation Gemini. The American Meteor Society suggests that if it’s before midnight, try facing toward the east, keeping the Moon out of your field of view. Closer to 2 a.m., try looking about halfway up the sky, in whatever is the darkest direction for your location.

*So that you don’t actually freeze yourself, remember to dress really, really warmly, and wrap yourself in a blanket or sleeping bag.

Amy Sayle is looking forward to presenting "Moon Myths" this week in the climate-controlled planetarium theater.

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