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The Webfooted Astronomer - August 2000


The Early Bird Gets the Great Lunar Eclipse

By Tim McKechnie and Randy Johnson

A few SAS members got up early to see the lunar eclipse on Sunday morning, July 16. Tim McKechnie and Randy Johnson were among them. Here's what they saw.

Tim McKechnie: What's with those crows?

For those who did not get up to view the lunar eclipse, you missed out on one of the memorable ones. The moon set about 40% into the umbra and first penumbral contact was fairly easy to see for once. But it wasn't the actual eclipse that I will long remember, but rather the circumstances in which it occurred. I set up a 90 mm refractor and had binoculars at a small beach south of Burien, which is very open on all sides, particularly to the east and, of course, to the west.

The sky was superb: not a cloud anywhere, no wind, and temperatures were around 45 degrees. At 4 a.m., Jupiter and Saturn were high in the east and gave a fun preliminary to the eclipse, competing mightily for attention. As the moon set I could see it all the way down to the horizon.

The sight of an eclipsing moon setting through the trees on Vashon Island while a freighter quietly sails down the Sound and the sun is rising behind you in the dead, still morning is truly unforgettable! But dog my cats; there sure are a hell of a lot of crows in this town!

Randy Johnson: A great morning to be alive!

I experienced a spectacular eclipse from Constellation Park just south of Alki Point in West Seattle. Mark Zemanek was my tour guide for the area. I arrived at his house just off Delridge Way at about 4:45 Sunday morning to find him with his scope in the front yard viewing Jupiter and Saturn while he awaited my arrival.

We tossed his scope in my car and made the 5 minute shuttle to the park on the waterfront. Navigating West Seattle at this time of day was a pure joy compared to what it would have been a few hours later with sunny afternoon beach cruisers.

Arriving on the scene just before 5 a.m. penumbral browning of the disk was detectable followed by a dark umbral shadow at the upper left of the disk. Olympic Mountains, still waters, purple twilight, a bright red sailboat bobbing gently at mooring a hundred yards off shore made this an incredibly beautiful morning scene. A great blue heron flapped lazily overhead while another perched off shore on a large tidal boulder, with an eye to the water, presumably looking for its breakfast.

Behind and to our left, Saturn and brilliant Jupiter crept higher. Every once in a while we'd steal a look at them through Mark's 6-inch telescope. There were others at the park watching the eclipse, too, though none of them were close enough to talk to or identify.

We were able to follow the moon right down to the horizon. One thing I noticed that struck me as odd was the apparent shape of the moon as it touched the horizon. The moon looked nearly 50 percent wider than it was high at this low altitude position. Was this atmospheric refraction effects or just an optical illusion created by having a 40 percent bite off the top left portion of the disk? Mark and I both observed this effect.

I agree with Tim's assessment though, that the main spectacle was the pleasant setting, and the quiet peace that comes with daybreak on the waterfront. Our parting view through the telescope was that of the accented ridges and rills at the top of Mount Rainier some 60 miles away in the flattering light of dawn. Great morning to be alive!

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