Much of Northern California should get a front-row seat to a celestial show Sunday night — one that should peak only minutes after sunset.
A total lunar eclipse — an event where the Earth casts its shadow on the moon — will grace the skies over the West Coast on Sunday in the hours immediately following sunset, causing the moon to turn a haunting shade of red for an hour and a half.
Clouds may obscure the show for some parts of the Bay Area — particularly those areas along the coast, including San Francisco, according to the National Weather Service. But the skies should open up a little farther inland, offering a prime chance to catch the first of only two total lunar eclipses this year.
“If you can find a spot where you can see the moon as its rising near the horizon, you should have a pretty good view,” said Gerald McKeegan, an astronomer at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. “And of course, as it gets higher in the sky, and the sky gets darker, it’ll get even better.
Here’s a primer on what to expect Sunday night.
WHAT IS A LUNAR ECLIPSE?
Total lunar eclipses are celestial events where the Earth moves between the sun and the moon — aligning just right for the Earth to cast its shadow on its largest satellite, covering it completely. During such eclipses, the lunar surface turns an eerie shade of red, a sight often referred to as a “Blood Moon.”
The moon’s rosy glow has to do with the varying wavelengths of light as it travels from the sun through Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA. Similar mechanisms are at play during sunrises and sunsets every day on Earth. And the more dust or clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, the redder the moon will appear, the space agency said.
“Sunlight is being refracted through the atmosphere of the Earth. And you basically get a red sunset all the way around the circumference of the Earth, as seen from the moon,” McKeegan said.
Of note, this lunar eclipse will be happening during a so-called “Super Moon.” That’s when the moon is at its closest point to the Earth — otherwise known as its perigee — making it appear 14% larger in the night sky.
WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN?
In the United States, only people along the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest will be able to see the entire lunar eclipse. That’s because the eclipse will begin at 6:32 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time — long before the moon even rises over the West Coast.
But the timing should still work out perfectly for observers in Northern California.
The moon is scheduled to rise in the Bay Area at 8:05 p.m., at which point it will already be almost completely shrouded by the Earth. Sunset is expected to follow just a few minutes later at 8:12 p.m.
“It’s going to look very different than you’re used to seeing the moon when it rises,” McKeegan said.
Totality — the point in which the moon is entirely darkened by the Earth’s shadow — will begin at 8:29 p.m., according to NASA. The moon will reach its darkest point at 9:11 p.m., though totality will continue until 9:53 p.m. After that, the moon will gradually continue to brighten as it emerges from behind the planet.
A partial eclipse — where the moon is entirely in the Earth’s prenumbra, or outer shadow — will continue until 10:55 p.m.
And the moon will return to its normal luminous self about an hour later at 11:50 p.m., when it emerges from the Earth’s prenumbra, according to NASA.
HOW DO I VIEW IT?
Simply look to the east around sunset for the moon to rise in the constellation Libra.
Tonight’s full moon will turn red for those in the lunar eclipse viewing area!
In a total lunar eclipse, the entire Moon falls within the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, called the umbra. When the Moon is within the umbra, it turns a reddish hue.https://t.co/NhV6jKXUQi pic.twitter.com/sc11p4mkGu
— NASA Moon (@NASAMoon) May 15, 2022
Unlike a solar eclipse — where the moon moves between the Earth and the sun, casting a shadow on the planet — no special glasses are needed to enjoy the show. And unlike meteor showers, lunar eclipses aren’t significantly dulled by the constant din of city lights.
WILL THE WEATHER COOPERATE?
Not for everyone, unfortunately.
People living in San Francisco, Oakland and along the coast will likely have to contend with cloudy skies during the eclipse, said Roger Gass, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
But conditions should improve farther inland, including in San Jose, Livermore or Concord, he said. Residents can also try getting above 1,500 feet in elevation to get a look at the eclipse from above the clouds.
“It’s really going to depend on your exact location,” Gass said. “Unless you’re on the immediate coastline, I think you’ll have a pretty decent view.”
WHAT IF I MISS THIS ECLIPSE?
Lunar eclipses typically happen two or three times a year. And you won’t have to wait long for another chance to view the next one.
The next such eclipse is expected to happen late on Nov. 7 and early on Nov. 8, when a total lunar eclipse will grace the skies over Asia, Australia, the Pacific Ocean and North and South America.
The West Coast should have a particularly prime opportunity to view that event, with the entire lunar eclipse expected to appear in view over California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Idaho, according to NASA.