Rare total lunar eclipse tonight

Lasting some 90 minutes, tonight's lunar eclipse will result in what is commonly called a Blood Moon

You may want to stay up late tonight – a lunar eclipse beginning just after midnight will be a particularly impressive one and the last total lunar eclipse we’ll witness until 2018.

Estimated to last almost 90 minutes, the lunar eclipse will result in what is commonly called a Blood Moon. This happens when some of the sun’s light, most of which is blocked by the Earth, makes its way through our planet’s atmosphere, casting a reddish brown light onto the moon.

This eclipse will also be special for another reason – the moon will be in a position closest to the Earth. This phenomenon is called a Supermoon and its eclipse is exceedingly rare – NASA says a Supermoon eclipse has only occurred five times in the 1900s, and the next one is expected in 2033.

This eclipse is the last in what is called a Lunar Tetrad – a series of four total lunar eclipses that occur in a row, without any partial eclipses in between. The total eclipses happen about six months apart. The current tetrad began in April 2014, with subsequent eclipses occurring in October 2014, April 2015 and the final one tomorrow.

Lunar tetrads can be rare in some centuries and can occur frequently in others. The 21st century will have eight lunar tetrads, the maximum number of lunar tetrads that can occur in a century. The last time this happened was in the 9th century.

As it is an eclipse of the moon, eye protection won’t be necessary and the event can be viewed easily with the naked eye, unlike solar eclipses which can be dangerous if the right equipment it not used. So get out there and look up – you won’t get a chance like this one for many years!

Eclipses in history

To our ancestors, eclipses must have been even more awe-inspiring than they are today. Without a contemporary understanding of astronomy and almost no light pollution providing perfect viewing conditions, eclipses would have been highly culturally significant for older civilizations. Here are some legends tied to lunar eclipses from cultures around the world.

The Inca believed a total eclipse was the result of a giant jaguar attacking and eating the moon. In order to deter the big cat from attacking the Earth next, Inca shook spears at the moon and made lots of noise to drive the predator away.

Ancient Mesopotamians saw lunar eclipses as an assault on the moon by seven demons. As lunar events were linked to events on Earth and thus to their leader, Mesopotamians installed a surrogate king, in case of any attack. The real king was hidden away as an ordinary citizen until the danger passed.

The Native American Hupa believed the moon had 20 wives and many pets, including mountain lions and snakes. When the moon did not feed the animals, they attacked him and made him bleed. The eclipse would end when his wives stepped in to protect him, collecting his blood and restoring him to health.

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