During the early evening of 15 June 2011, Namibian time, the respective orbits of the sun, moon and earth carried them into an alignment, with the earth sandwiched between its closest celestial neighbours, such that the earth’s shadow crept over the face of the moon in spectacular fashion. The moon was slowly darkened from its lower edge as the three players moved relative to each other.
Was the moon being eaten by a dog? Swallowed by a snake? Watching this event as it slowly unfolded in the clear skies over Windhoek, it was easy to understand some of the myths that were developed by our forebears to explain the slow “disappearance” of the moon. Of course the moon being swallowed by a snake makes a certain amount of sense if you believe the myth that there is a rabbit living up there!
The more accurate explanation that the moon is simply passing behind the earth so that the sun’s rays could, for a short time, not reflect off the face of the moon is not nearly as much fun as the myths!
In many cultures eclipses of the sun or moon are strongly associated with pestilence or calamity, as it is thought that the sun (in the case of a solar eclipse) or the moon (in the case of a lunar eclipse) was growing weak through an illness that could be spread to folk on earth by the rays that reached us. Pots, pans and other utensils should be turned upside down to prevent them from becoming “contaminated” during the period of the eclipse and causing devastating illness when they are subsequently used to prepare food. Some people stay in their homes with doors closed and curtains drawn until the horror has passed.
When a solar eclipse takes place it can be seen from a relatively small part of the world, but a lunar eclipse can be seen from anywhere within that half of the world that is experiencing darkness at the time the event takes place. A lunar eclipse also lasts for considerably longer than a solar eclipse, so it seems reasonable that it is seen by many more people.
The colour of the moon can become quite spectacular at the height of an eclipse, as the dust particles in the air cause the blue light to be scattered and the moon becomes red as a result.
Lunar eclipses are not very rare events; and even total lunar eclipses such as that seen on 15 June 2011 occur every few years. Nevertheless, to have one occurring in the early evening (before bed time!) and to have clear skies throughout was a treat.
In practice photographing an eclipse can be a little tricky as the light is reducing continually until the point of maximum coverage of the moon, and therefore the exposure needs to be adjusted minute by minute. As shutter speeds are lengthened a tripod becomes essential, and the surprisingly quick movement of the moon becomes problematic if you don’t have the equipment to track the movment.
The accompanying photographs were taken from Windhoek on 15 June 2011 and are timed from the approximate start of the eclipse; the time elapsed until each picture was taken can be seen by moving your mouse pointer over the picture.