Lunar eclipses occur when Earth’s shadow blocks the sun’s light, which otherwise reflects off the moon. There are three types — total, partial and penumbral with the most dramatic being a total lunar eclipse, in which Earth’s shadow completely covers the moon. Throughout history, eclipses have inspired awe and even fear, especially when total lunar eclipses turned the moon blood-red, an effect that terrified people who had no understanding of what causes an eclipse and therefore blamed the events on this god or that. A lunar eclipse can occur only at full moon. A total lunar eclipse can happen only when the sun, Earth and moon are perfectly lined up — anything less than perfection creates a partial lunar eclipse or no eclipse at all. Some understanding of simple celestial mechanics explains how lunar eclipses work. Lunar eclipses are among the easiest skywatching events to observe. Simply go out, look up and enjoy. You don’t need a telescope or any other special equipment. However, binoculars or a small telescope will bring out details in the lunar surface — moonwatching is as interesting during an eclipse as anytime. If the eclipse occurs during winter, bundle up if you plan to be out for the duration — an eclipse can take a couple hours to unfold. Bring warm drinks and blankets or chairs for comfort. During a Total Lunar Eclipse, the Sun, Earth and Moon form a straight line. The Earth blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the Moon. The Sun is behind the Earth, so the Sun’s light casts the Earth’s shadow on the Moon. This shadow covers the entire Moon and causes a Total Lunar Eclipse. For a lunar eclipse to occur, the Sun, Earth and Moon must be roughly aligned in a straight line. If the Sun, Earth and Moon do not align, the Earth cannot cast a shadow on the Moon’s surface and an eclipse cannot happen.When the Sun, Earth and Moon are not perfectly aligned, only the outer part of the Earth’s shadow covers the Moon. Such an eclipse is called a penumbral lunar eclipse. In a Total Lunar Eclipse, the Earth’s umbra completely covers the Moon. The Earth’s umbra is about 870,000 miles (1.4 million km) wide. Even though the Earth completely blocks sunlight from directly reaching the surface of the Moon, the Moon is still visible to the naked eye during a Total Lunar Eclipse. This is because the Earth’s atmosphere refracts sunlight and indirectly lights up the Moon’s surface.
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