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Total lunar eclipse tonight, public viewing offered

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The moon will likely turn a dim orange tonight as it passes into the earth's shadow.

The color varies from year to year during an eclipse, said Curt Cole, president of the local Flint River Astronomy Club. The color depends mostly on how much dust is in the atmosphere around the world. But the event, he said, will be spectacular to watch.

Members of the astronomy club will have their telescopes and binoculars set up at 8 p.m., for free public views of the moon, Saturn, and various stars, during tonight's total lunar eclipse. The next total lunar eclipse visible from Georgia will not occur until December 2010.

The viewing site will be set up in front of the Stuckey Building on the Griffin campus of the University of Georgia (UGA-Griffin), located at 1109 Experiment Street.

"I've seen one partial solar eclipse and a half dozen lunar eclipses," said Cole, a residential and commercial painter from Hampton.

He joined the astronomy club about six years ago to whet his curiosity. Some 42 other interested professionals and blue collar workers also participate in the club, which holds regular meetings at UGA-Griffin.

The astronomy club will host the free public viewing as an outreach project in conjunction with the UGA-Griffin Continuing Education Department.

"We encourage young people to come out and take advantage of it," said Art Cain, director of continuing education at UGA-Griffin. "It's a great learning experience. If the sky is clear, they'll be able to see a total eclipse of the moon and maybe even a view of Saturn."

The event is an effort to expose more young people to the world of astronomy, he added.

"We do view it as an outreach to stimulating interest in young people," Cain said. "A lot of young people don't get exposed to telescopes. This is something that can stimulate their interests later. [Club members] have a passion for things that you can see up in the sky."

Though some young people may not develop a great passion for astronomy, Cole said he believes exposure to the science could spark other scientific pursuits among them.

"We're not producing the engineers and scientists that we need," Cole said. "This could help produce them. It's also something I think a lot of adults would be interested in."

Typically, one or two lunar eclipses occur annually, though some are only partial eclipses.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the earth's shadow, which can only occur at full moon. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and sun, which can only occur at new moon.

Eclipses occur in pairs, about two weeks apart, either a lunar eclipse followed by solar, or a solar eclipse followed by lunar. This month, a solar eclipse occurred Feb. 7, but was only visible in the southern hemisphere.

Partial eclipse begins at 8:43 p.m., when the moon begins entering earth's shadow, and totality, the point at which the moon is completely within earth's shadow, begins at 10:01 p.m., and lasts until 10:51 p.m. The eclipse ends at about midnight.

During totality, no direct sunlight shines on the moon, but earth's atmosphere reflects some sunlight onto it. The result is that the moon gets very dim, but never dark enough to be invisible.

Large amounts of dust from volcanic eruptions or forest fires can cause the moon to be a distinct reddish color. More common is a dull orange color.

The planet Saturn will be seen near the moon, in the constellation Leo. Now is a good opportunity to view this fascinating planet through a telescope. The tilt of the rings is slowly diminishing so that in September 2009, we will be viewing the rings edge-on, and they will be nearly invisible from earth.

Mars will also be high in the sky today, in the constellation Taurus. It appears very small, but its dark features should be just visible through the telescope.

Warm clothing is advised. Personal scopes and binoculars are welcome. Visit the Flint River Astronomy Club web site for more information.

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On the net:

Flint River Astronomy: www.flintriverastronomy.org