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There will be a somewhat uncommon astronomic occurrence this evening, when the moon slips into the shadow of the earth, leaving a deep copper haze in the night sky.
THIS evening, the moon will slide into the earth’s shadow, causing an eclipse.

Enrico Olivier, an astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), says a lunar eclipse occurs when the moon moves into the shadow of Earth, blocking the sun’s rays from striking the moon.

Tonight’s eclipse is special, he adds, because it is a total lunar eclipse, which only happens 30 percent of the time. “Most of the time we get a partial or penumbral lunar eclipse.”

During the lunar eclipse the moon will most likely have a dark copper red shade around it. This is because much blue light will be removed by the earth’s atmosphere spreading off small atmospheric particles, letting mainly the red part of the sunlight through, explains Olivier.

“Unlike a solar eclipse, no precautions regarding eye safety are needed when observing the moon at this time.”

According to the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, more than half the world will be able to see the eclipse tonight. It will also be the darkest one in almost 100 years. During the event, the earth and the moon will be on an almost straight line.

It will begin little after 9pm and continue for two hours, ending around 11pm. The darkened moon will be visible everywhere in South Africa. The last total lunar eclipse visible from the southern part of Africa was in February 2008, and the next one is expected in four years’ time, in September 2015.

“Though lunar eclipses happen at least twice a year, any given eclipse will only be visible from certain parts of the world,” says the SAAO. “Furthermore, a lunar eclipse seen from any given location is more likely to be either a partial or penumbral eclipse than a total eclipse.”

SAAO is the national centre for optical and infrared astronomy. It is a facility of the National Research Foundation under the Department of Science and Technology. Its main function is to conduct basic research in astronomy and astrophysics by providing a facility and promoting astronomy and astrophysics in Southern Africa. SAAO’s headquarters are in Observatory, Cape Town.

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