The super moon and its total eclipse

by Trevor Morgan

Supermoon1A total lunar eclipse of the super moon is a rare occurrence: the last one was in 1982 and the next one will occur 2033.

I looked forward to it with increasing anticipation and excitement. Luckily the observing conditions were excellent during the early hours of Monday morning the 28th September 2015. The weather was also kind, so there was no need for a thick coat and gloves.

The super moon is supposed to appear 14% bigger and 30 % brighter than an ordinary full moon so I began to observe the moon before the eclipse started. I could not honestly say that the super moon looked any different to an ordinary full moon. Our memories are short after we make observations and it is difficult to remember how bright the full moon is from one month to the next.

With regard to size, the moon appears to be a different size depending how close to the horizon it is. The large apparent size of the full moon on the horizon is caused by the moon illusion. This did not mean that the super full moon was not a very impressive sight as it rose high in the sky above Darrick Wood. The super moon’s light was overpowering the light pollution over Orpington so that only the brightest of stars were visible.

Before the moon is totally eclipsed by the earth’s shadow, the eclipse enters into a partial phase and there was plenty of time to allow my mind to wander and wonder.

Before the advent of scientific thinking and the ability to predict mathematically the date of a lunar eclipse, ancient man must have been totally shocked by the sudden change in the appearance of the full moon. If he had noticed that a super moon appeared larger and brighter in the sky, then it would have seemed to him like the influence of magic or the work of a mystical being or god.

A super moon eclipse must have been a glorious sight over Darrick Wood before the advent of electric street lighting but even in modern day Orpington I felt a sense of awe.

But enough of this musing, I had a camera and tripod to set up and I needed to test the exposure to take a good image of the partial and full phases of the eclipse.

It was my intention to just take a photograph of the moon without including any man-made structures or trees. The standard camera lens only produced a very small image so I choose a telephoto.

Supermoon3Supermoon2During the early partial phase the contrast between the fully lit parts of the moon and the obscured parts was too great for the camera’s processor to handle, so that a double image was produced. It looks rather artistic, to me, but it did not reflect the true colours.

Later on in the partial phase the camera was better able to handle the contrast so that the true colours were revealed. During the eclipse I spent more time looking at the moon to appreciate the beauty of our natural satellite gradually turning a blood red colour.

When the eclipse was in its full phase the view was simple amazing and the camera had no difficult calculating the correct exposure.

It was better to observe the event with the naked eye rather than through binoculars because the coating on the lenses altered the colour of the moon from blood red to a blue-grey.

The full phase of the eclipse lasted about an hour and it was possible to see the stars again because the moon light was much less intense. Orpington’s omnipresent light pollution was visible with the naked again.

The craters of the moon appeared less defined owing to the reduced contrast of the light and the whole face of the moon looked a bit blurred. You can see this in the photographs. Throughout all this time I could not resist looking at the moon directly rather through a viewfinder.

In the early hours of the morning I would have expected the neighbourhood to be completely silent; but not so as I could still hear the noise of the traffic on the A21 and it was easy to hear the freight trains passing on the nearby railway line.  The noise pollution was rather distracting and I would have preferred to have seen the eclipse from a dark skies location well away from the light and noise pollution of a city or town.

Luckily, an eclipse of the moon lasts long enough to complete the photography and I still had plenty of time to regard the splendour of the occasion. My mind started to wander again and I asked myself what would Buzz Aldrin have seen from the moon if he was there? He would have seen a total solar eclipse. The “disc” of the earth would have appeared black and the sun would have been totally obscured. He would, however, have seen the black disc of the earth being surrounded by the blood red glow of the sun’s rays being refracted by our atmosphere.

Like us he would not have appreciated any silence as he would have heard the noise of his spacesuit pumping oxygen and his own breathe. He would also have heard the crackling of the radio and his colleague’s voices. The silence of the airless moon would have meant death.

Supermoon4We on earth had to be content with this.

A total eclipse of the moon is a compelling and beautiful sight and can be viewed in its full glory even from an urban location. It is worth encouraging young people to go out and observe with the naked eye and see astronomical events in their true context rather than from a computer screen.

You do not have to wait until 2033 for the next total eclipse of the moon; the next one is on 27th July 2018 and it will be visible from London but this is not a super moon. All this is weather permitting, of course.


On a technical note and to photograph the full phase:

I used a Pentax digital SLR,

The camera was fitted with a 300mm telephoto lens,

For the total eclipse I used a shutter speed of 8 secs with an aperture of F22,

The processor was set to 1600 ISO sensitivity,

I used a tripod and a shutter release cable,

I took a RAW image and adjusted the colour balance in Photoshop to get the make the moon appear the same colour as I remembered it. I did not make any other adjustments.