For star-gazing enthusiasts, this Wednesday is an incredibly rare occasion — a “super blue blood moon.”
The phenomenon, which doubles as an astronomy-themed tongue-twister, combines three major lunar events in one night. Each of the three are rare enough on their own, but to have all of them coincide on Jan. 31 is pretty incredible. A super blue blood moon only is only visible in the U.S. about once ever 150 years.
Big events like this often transcend astronomy circles and become talking points on their own. This one may be especially confusing for the non-scientists among us, however, because there are so many things happening at once and so much to understand. To make it easier, here's a one-stop guide to what makes up a "super blue blood moon."
A blue moon is when two full moons happen within one month. The last time this occurred was July 31, 2015. The term “blue moon” has changed definitions throughout the decades, but it has always pertained to a rare lunar event. It used to rotate on a seasonal cycle.
Sometimes the moon actually does take on a blue-ish appearance, but scientists now understand that that has to do with the level of certain gases and particulate in the atmosphere, not the moon itself. These events can’t be predicted.
A supermoon occurs when the full moon coincides with the moon reaching its closest point to the Earth in its orbit. Much like the way the Earth revolves around the sun, the moon takes an elliptical path around our planet. This means that the moon travels in an oval around the Earth. At a certain point, it’s closer than normal, making it appear particularly large in the sky. Scientists call that a supermoon.
You'll be able to see a rare, super-blue-blood-moon on the 31st of January - Not only will it be the second full moon this month, but it will also be a supermoon during a total lunar eclipse.. The first time all 3 events occurred simultaneously since 1866!January 28, 2018
A blood moon is the effect of a total lunar eclipse. On Wednesday, the Earth will come between the moon and the sun. As the moon falls into the Earth’s shadow, the light reflecting off of it will take on a reddish color, earning it the name “blood moon.” This eerie event comes in wide cycles that are difficult to predict. According to TimeAndDate.com, there were no total lunar eclipses for hundreds of years between 1582 and 1908, yet there will have been eight by the end of this century alone.
On Jan. 31, 3 lunar events will come together in an unusual overlap that’s being called a super blue blood moon. See how this celestial rarity will help @NASAMoon scientists observe what happens when the lunar surface cools quickly during a lunar eclipse: https://t.co/5keRakwhUk pic.twitter.com/x9jhb5foVY— NASA (@NASA) January 28, 2018
Viewing the super blue blood moon is going to be tricky. While the events all line up on one night, their exact zeniths will vary. In fact, Space.com reports that the peak of the supermoon will actually be on Tuesday night, but NASA has still classified Wednesday as a supermoon event.
Just before dawn on Wed., 3 lunar events will come together in an unusual overlap that’s called a #SuperBlueBloodMoon. Join our @NASAMoon experts today during a Science @Reddit_AMA at 3pm ET to ask them about this upcoming lunar event: https://t.co/FRDIhyncsA pic.twitter.com/VTmrXD24ck— NASA (@NASA) January 29, 2018
The clearest view of the super blue blood moon will be available to those in the western United States. Obviously, experience stargazers with telescopes will know the best way to calibrate their instruments. For amateurs, it’s recommended to find a high vantage point like a hill, or even a rooftop if it’s safe. If you plan on using binoculars or other equipment, take a look with the naked eye as well. A comparison between the two will provide the best perspective on the event.
Those intent on seeing the moon with their own eyes will have to either wake up early, or stay up really late. Nasa recommends watching the sky at 5:30 a.m. Luckily, for those that aren’t morning people or extreme night owls, Nasa will be live streaming the event on Nasa TV. Their cameras will show the spectacular lunar event from multiple vantage points across the country. The government agency will undoubtedly make the footage highlights available afterwards.
Taking clear and compelling photos of the night sky can be extremely difficult. Luckily, a veteran Nasa photographer named Bill Ingalls recently wrote down his biggest tips for photographing lunar events. Interestingly, he stresses the importance of including landmarks on the ground for perspective, rather than trying to zoom in on the moon. He even advocates including people in the foreground of the shot, making it more relatable to the human eye.
Whether you’re using an advanced DSLR camera or a smartphone, Ingalls suggests playing around with the settings, and trying everything to get the shot you want. He also notes that the place you’re standing when you take the picture can be just as important as what you’re pointing at at, so scout your location carefully.
Since this is a lunar eclipse and not a solar eclipse, no eye protection is necessary.
The confluence of four lunar events in one is extremely rare, however, as noted before, these events occur in odd cycles and are dependent on a number of other factors. The last super blue blood moon was in December of 1982, which isn’t that long ago in celestial time.
Wednesday’s lunar eclipse is especially precious to American stargazers, because the next one will completely miss North America. Eclipses are only visible to a certain portion of the planet because the moon doesn’t stay in place for an entire 24 hour day.
On July 27, 2018, there will be another total lunar eclipse, but as far as those in the United States are concerned, it will look like any other night.
After that, the next total eclipse won’t be until Jan. 21, 2019. Americans are in luck, as the whole country will get a look at that one, though many parts of Asia and Australia will miss out.
Not long after the super blue blood moon, there will be a partial solar eclipse on Feb. 15. The team running the live streams and Twitter for Nasa have a busy couple of weeks ahead of them. In between, they’re broadcasting a Russian spacewalk on Feb. 2. A group of cosmonauts will step out of the International Space Station at 9:45 a.m., retrieving samples and installing hardware. The walk will last around six and a half hours.