While some may be thinking about the Star of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, we will be treated to a dance in the sky that will not repeat for hundreds of years on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. This will be a lunar eclipse at the same time as the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.
LUNAR ECLIPSE: When the Sun, Earth and Moon line up and the Full Moon goes into the Earth's shadow it causes an eclipse. This alignment does not happen every month because the moon's orbit is also tilted from the Earth's orbit at about 5 degrees and it rotates too. The ancients knew that these tilts rotated in both a 9 and 19 year cycle as recorded in places like Stonehenge, England and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
TIME: This particular eclipse will be early Tuesday morning Dec. 21, and is well positioned for viewers in the United States. The total eclipse lasts about an hour. The peak will be (USA time zones) 3:17 a.m. Eastern, 2:17 a.m. Central, 1:17 a.m. Mountain and 12:17 a.m. Pacific. Total eclipse spans about an hour, partial spans about 3 hours, entire process spans about 5 hours. These spans reach before and after the peak.
SOLSTICE: The Earth is tilted relative to its orbit around the sun at about 23.5 degrees. This leads to our seasons as we get more and less sun from shorter and longer days. The reversal of the swing back and forth occurs June 21 and Dec. 21.
TIME: The December Solstice, called Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere, will occur on the afternoon of Dec. 21, 2010 at 23:38 Universal or Zulu Time (USA = 6:38 PM Eastern, 5:38 PM Central, 4:38 PM Mountain, 3:38 PM Pacific).
NOTE: This is just before sunset for those of us in the Mountain Time Zone. I will be joining many at Chaco Canyon for the experience and photography. Chaco Canyon is often called America's Stonehenge. I recommend the movies narrated by Robert Redford: "The Sun Dagger," and "The Mystery of Chaco Canyon". And especially the commentary by Carl Sagan on YouTube
SO?: Some ancient peoples thought that the Sun, Moon and other natural elements were persons -- persons on whom their lives depended. If it seemed that the Sun died, they feared for their own existence and dependence on the Sun, rain, seasons and nature.
Unlike the Stone Age model which had a flat Earth floating on water underneath an inverted bowl holding the stars, many ancients such as Eratosthenes knew the Earth was round, how big it was and how far it was to the Sun and Moon.
With the Earth tilted and the Moon's orbit also tilted, and everything rotating, it is only now with our computers that we realize how much work it took to gather and record astronomy data in ancient times without any instruments. Never forget that ancient people were just as smart as we are (and sometimes more?). As we leave our stone age superstitions behind, we are just now becoming aware of how much our ancestors knew and how very much we still have to learn.
THE LESSON: We no longer think that the Sun and Moon are going to die, at least anytime soon, but we can now see further to new shocking realizations. Remember when the comet hit Jupiter in 1994? It made holes in Jupiter the size of Earth. Events like that and this winter solstice with lunar eclipse during the holiday season remind us of our mortality and fragile lives in this dramatic universe with powerful forces in motion.
This is a time of year of remembrance and thinking of those we love, whatever our persuasions. As Stephen Levine said: "If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?" I always liked the phrase in the old Book of Common Prayer that talked about "things we have done and things we have left undone." Have you left something undone? Now is the time to tend to it. Only now exists.