Jason Shilling Kendall: Citizen Astronomer

William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

Public Lectures at Other Locations

Total Eclipse of the Moon

  • December 21, 2010
  • Aboard Royal Caribbean's vessel Voyager of the Seas
  • Map of Eclipse

While on a cruise through the Caribbean on The Voyager of the Seas, I had the wonderful opportunity to see a total lunar eclipse. My parents and my wife and I went on the cruise for a weeklong Christmas vacation, and this was the capper to it all. I worked with the cruise staff to make sure that the event would be possible, and they happily printed up a bunch of photocopies for me to distribute around the ship. The Captain also made mention of it in his noon address over the loudspeakers as did the Cruise Director after the big show in the main La Scala theater. That night, I organized a short discussion in the ship's library at 11:30 PM. For many, this was too late a night, given that we were pulling into Cozumel, Mexico at 7AM, and some had paid for excursions off-boat. But, judging by the later chats at dinner tables the next day, the lunar eclipse was the best event bar none. At the library, I discussed the history of eclipses, and the methods by which the ancient Greek astronomer Eratosthenes determined the diameter of the Earth to within 15%. When we went up to the 11th deck to get outside, unfortunately, the ship's external lights had to all be lit, so the deck was quite bright. And worse, we had passed under a cloud bank, and the Moon was only just peeking out at odd moments. It looked as if we would only see it in bits. But that was not daunting the bunch down in the hot tubs. The bars were still open, and they were partying it up, hooting about the eclipse from their steamy vantage point. Then we noticed it: the big hole in the clouds to the South; right in the ship's path. The vessel was traveling Southeast to get to Cozumel, and we were moving out from under a huge layer of sucker-hole-clouds which just let us glimpse the Moon in her full glory. The clouds were low and thick, as they are in the Caribbean. They are normally only about 1-2 thousand feet up, with nothing beyond, unless you're in a low pressure system or in a high pressure system. The winds picked up, and about 70 people had come up from below to look at the eclipse. While the clouds were frustrating, we saw that holes steadily marching toward us. With all the people up there, the suspense was building, and people were getting excited. The Moon was being sneaky with the clouds, and it was now a race to see whether we would see the first contact, or whether it would have to wait for the clouds. With Canopus shining brightly in the Southwest, I could tell that it would be a great night to watch from here on out. The crowd watched intently as the shadow passed across the Moon. When before there was a lot of chatter up to the event, now that it had started, there was a calm that pervaded it. I guess I was the one instigating much of the chatting, as I went around and answered questions from people. There were a number of kids who were up on deck, away from their parents. They cornered me with a lot of questions. One kid in particular was very interested, and I do hope that he keeps up his interest. he asked about everything from how stars worked to the nature of light to space travel. Such a fertile mind will hopefully go far and contribute much. When totality occurred, the stars leapt out. The Moon had a gorgeous faint red glow to it. There was a distinct gradient across the Moon showing the depth of the umbra to the South side of the Moon. The color was not a fire-engine red, bun rather a deep red, almost rust-colored. It seemed to lie exactly as an L2 on the Danjon scale the entire time during the eclipse. The slowly changing ship's direction, combined with the near zenithal location made judging its position from a prone position a bit difficult. But the stars. The stars simply exploded during the eclipse, with magnitude 5 stars easily visible, even under the ship's deck lights. Simply covering them with your hand was enough to make the night sky truly dark. The Hyades were easily visible, as was the fuzziness of the Orion Nebula. Numerous double-stars were visible, and the band of the Milky Way was the only thing lost by the ship's lights, as it was overhead. Of the 70 or so people up on the top deck, most stayed only until full eclipse occurred. The drama of the approaching eclipse with the waxing umbral eclipse was dramatic, with a loud cheer, especially from the drunken revelers in the hot tub below, as the last penumbral brightness winked out to the full umbral eclipse. It was striking to see the sky visibly darken during this event. The high-school kids who met each other onboard were all under-dressed for the unexpectedly cool night. My wife bundled herself up in a Russian mink hat, and my mother was wrapped up completely from head to toe. My father and I braved the 50 degree evening with light jackets. As totality continued, we found and named constellations. I had originally thought to bring my Galileoscope on the cruise, but getting a gun-case through TSA did not appeal to me, neither did trying to keep it from getting roughed up and we went. So, it was naked-eye observing the whole night. I did have a digital camera, that is showing its age, that barely was able to take the pictures of the Moon in eclipse. There were a number of people taking photos all over the deck, and I am sure they will show up somewhere. Most startling of all, was a young woman, not even out of high school, who talked about what she was learning in class. She came from Bolivia, spoke perfect English, and asked me to continually pronounce various constellation and star names, because her teachers had not given her the English pronunciations. Then she casually mentioned that in her 10th grade science class, they learned about the HR Diagram. That piqued my interest again, and I felt woe for our gadget-addicted youth, who can barely sit down without checking their iphones. It's not like most kids get such educations, but it was completely surprising to hear of even one. It would be highly interesting to meet her teacher, who clearly inspired her to learn. After more than two hours now of being up on the top deck, we could see the end of totality approaching. By this time, we were down to fewer than ten people. We were all up on the topmost deck, on lounge chairs. In just a few hours, these lounge chairs would be warmed by the Sun, and smelling of pina coladas and sunscreen. But for now, we basked in the nighttime glory quietly unfolding above us. As the ship approached Cozumel, Mexico, and we could see its lights in the distance, and even though dawn was two hours away, the first rays of the Sun seemed to burst as the Moon began its trek into the penumbra. The end of totality was brighter than I had expected, and heralded the end of the evening. There were only four of us up on the upper deck by that time, my parents having long since trundled off to bed, coddled to sleep with the wondrous sights and the slow rolling of the vessel. Donna and I descended from the deck, leaving an excited man at the top, who had let his fiancee sleep in their cabin while he took in the spectacle. He waved us goodbye, and we took one last glance up, at the Moon that was now halfway out of the umbra, with the comparatively bright penumbral light casting our shadows on the dimmed deck lights. Donna and I descended into the ship, where we found an unlocked piano in a main lobby area on the promenade. There, late in the evening to an audience of only me, she played Love Story. As her playing echoed around the empty bars and staircases, we remembered what my Uncle Travis had said at our wedding, that marriage is a story of love, and that we should write well. Donna looked at me and said that tonight, we added a new chapter to our love, with the gorgeous sight of the opalescent Moon in sanguine eclipse.

Voyager of the Seas | Pictures from the cruise on Facebook, including pictures of the eclipse from a little camera on an unsteady boat.

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Amateur Astronomers Association of New York Astronomical Society of the Pacific