Lunar eclipse entices local astronomers

Vicky Klukkert | The Daily StarSUNY Oneonta astronomy professors Josh Nollenberg and Valerie Rapson stand in front of the Physical Science building on campus with a telescope to show where they will be set up Friday morning to view a lunar eclipse.

An almost total lunar eclipse will take place between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. Friday, Nov. 19, and astronomy professors at SUNY Oneonta encourage everyone to take a look at the sky.

Valerie Rapson, physics and astronomy professor, said the ideal viewing time will between 2 and 5 a.m. Unlike solar eclipses, people can look directly at the moon and watch the entire eclipse. 

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow (umbra). During Friday's lunar eclipse, 97% of the visible moon will pass through the Earth’s umbra, making this an almost-total lunar eclipse, Rapson said. Her colleague, Josh Nollenberg, showed pictures of the last lunar eclipse he was able to see in 2015 that showed the moon a bright orange-red color. The Earth blocks out most of the sun's visible light, except for the red light, they explained. 

Because it's not a total eclipse, "just a little sliver of the moon will be brighter than the rest of the moon," Nollenberg said.

The college's Physics and Astronomy Club and Nebulous Society will set up telescopes outside the Physical Science Building for students to view the eclipse. Rapson and Nollenberg encourage everyone to venture into their yards to watch the eclipse. Rapson said it can be viewed even with the city lights, and can be viewed in the south and western sky from any location in the North America. 

The duration of the eclipse is a little longer than other eclipses because the moon is the farthest away in its orbit around the Earth, Nollenberg said. That means the size of the projected shadow is bigger. The next lunar eclipse will be May 15, 2022, Rapson said, and people in North America will be able to view the eclipse.

Nollenberg said all lunar eclipses are generally paired with solar eclipses, however, the next solar eclipse on Dec. 4 will only be viewed by penguins and researchers in Antarctica.

Nollenberg said he traveled to Idaho in 2017 to view the total solar eclipse and said it was an interesting experience. He said he knew the sky would get dark and it would get cooler, but he didn't expect the birds and the animals to go quiet and for the air to smell differently.

"It went from a hot, sunny day to late evening," he said. "The color went from yellow to electric blue."

SUNY Oneonta has a planetarium and an observatory, which has the largest telescope in the state, Rapson said, for students in the physics major and astronomy minor.

Rapson said she became interested in astronomy because she wanted to "know if aliens were real, what our place was in the universe and what life was out there. I watched a lot of Star Trek growing up."

Nollenberg said he became interested in astronomy after watching a kickball hit his head and a visit to Lake Michigan. He said instead of moving out of the way of the ball, he was fascinated by the curvature of the ball as it traveled into his face, and said he visited Lake Michigan on a clear, dark night and watched all of the stars.

"Empire Strikes Back came out a week later and I was hooked," he said. 

Prior to the pandemic, the planetarium had on average 200 shows per year shown to 6,000 people in a theater that seats 30, Nollenberg said. The two facilities are closed to the public due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but they may to reopen in the spring, he said. The Discovery Center, which also had about 6,000 visitors every year, may also open in the spring with new exhibits, director Doug Reilly said.

Vicky Klukkert, staff writer, can be reached at vklukkert@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_VickyK on Twitter.

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