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Black Sky Affair

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Oh, my space cadets. We are in for one hell of a show this month. Pardon my hushed reverence, but a truly extraordinary astronomical event awaits us the wee morning hours of Nov. 19. A partial lunar eclipse. While that revelation may come off as somewhat underwhelming, allow me to explain…

Lunar eclipses usually happen twice each year and are therefore not uncommon, occurring when Earth passes almost directly between the moon and sun, allowing Earth’s shadow to fall upon the moon’s surface. One would think this would turn the moon black, but due to refraction of the sun’s light through our dusty atmosphere, Earth’s shadow is often of a copper hue rather than the pure black a total absence of light would create, which produces a phenomenon known colloquially as the “blood moon.” While November’s eclipse will indeed be a partial one as most are, this noteworthy eclipse will cover 97 percent of the moon’s face. The distinction between this partial eclipse and a total lunar eclipse will be minor at best, and it will be easily visible in the western sky throughout all of Oklahoma. But these are hardly what make this event exceptional.

What will make this happening uniquely rare is its duration. Right after midnight, as Nov. 18 transitions into Nov. 19, our shadow’s edge, or penumbra, will begin to creep over the lunar surface. Slowly yet steadily, the moon will move farther into Earth’s deep shadow, or umbra. By 1:18 a.m. the eclipse will begin in earnest, reaching maximum effect just after 3 a.m. then waning until right after 4:45 a.m., with the event itself drawing to close a few minutes after 6 a.m. The practical upshot of all this? November’s will be of a duration longer than any other partial eclipse of the entire 21st century. That, my fellow cadets, gives me the shivers.

Cloud cover permitting, you’ll have well over one full hour to dance naked and wildly under an utterly rust-colored moon.

This isn’t the only aspect of such heavenly affairs which gives me that tingly feeling, however. Such rarity is precious, to be sure, particularly when held next to the relative brevity of even a long and full human life. But far more meaningful it must be that, in our quest to fathom our universe through the benefit of scientific understanding, we no longer need fear such things. What would have absolutely terrified our ancestors has become to us a marvel of beauty and surety, a fact of Newtonian mechanics. On that night, we need not dread the imminent ending of our world or furious reprisal from vengeful gods as signified by the supposed harbinger hanging in the night sky. Knowledge has transformed the dark omen into a thing we may appreciate without apprehension. The sky will not fall. We’ve been there. Set a reminder for this one, cadets. It’s not to be missed. Here’s to clear skies, and happy dancing.

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