'This is the closest Mars will have been to Earth in 32 years' - Everything you need to know about tomorrow's Blood Moon
Ahead of tomorrow's lunar eclipse, Celine Naughton meets Ireland's stargazers and finds out the best viewpoints, and why it shouldn't be missed
Stargazers are in for a treat tomorrow with the promise of a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of a spectacular 'Blood Moon' during the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century.
As usual, the prophets of doom have been issuing dire warnings that a red moon signals armageddon is nigh, but in fact its must-see coppery-red tinge is the effect of a natural phenomenon occurring about twice a year. During the eclipse, as the sun and moon directly align on opposite sides of the Earth, the sunlight that usually shows a full moon as creamy white becomes blocked by the Earth's shadow.
"The only light the moon will receive will be refracted from Earth's atmosphere, which will make it appear red," explains Brian Espey, Professor of Astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin. "It's worth a look, but it won't predict the end of days or the second coming."
With Ireland set to catch only the tail end of the eclipse, the Blood Moon will be visible in our skies for 45 minutes from 9.30pm, provided clouds don't get in the way.
"We're crossing our fingers and hoping for a clear sky," says David Moore, founder of Astronomy Ireland, an organisation going by the proud boast of being the most popular astronomy club in the cosmos. He says it's no coincidence that we Irish are fascinated by the stars.
"Irish people were among the first humans to observe the skies," says David. "Just look at the legacy of Newgrange. Our ancient ancestors carved their observations in stone, leaving a cosmic trail for future generations to follow."
He also points to Birr, Co. Offaly, which in 1845 was the site of the world's first recorded 'biggest telescope'. Today Birr Castle is home to a €2 million radio telescope, the Irish Low Frequency Array, or I-LOFAR, part of a powerful pan-European radio observatory.
To get a good look at the lunar eclipse, enthusiasts will need nothing more sophisticated than a cheap pair of binoculars, according to David. And whatever the weather, he's determined to witness it, even if he has to drive miles to dodge the clouds. "I'll be watching the weather all day," he says. "It's unusual for cloud to cover the entire country, so wherever has the clearest sky, I'll be there."
The magic doesn't end with the Blood Moon, he adds. As the moon starts to come out of the totality phase and return to bask in its usual bright light, we'll see Earth's shadow move across its surface.
"You'll also notice a super-bright object next to the moon," says David. "This is Mars, and it's the closest the red planet will have been to Earth in 32 years."
Stargazer Eamon O'Fearchain will be watching the eclipse through his telescope, which he often sets up in his back garden to observe the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter. And when he's not observing the sky, the retired civil servant brings the galaxy to the classroom, sharing his knowledge with primary school children through play.
"I get the students to enact the universe," he says. "They play the parts of the different planets and run around doing orbits in the playground. It's a fun way to get kids engaging with astronomy at a young age."
Ann Dunne, managing editor of Astronomy Ireland Magazine, is hoping for clear skies on Friday so she can watch the eclipse with friends.
"It's the kind of event that makes me reflect on how small we are and how big the universe is," says Ann. "There's so much to see in the night sky if you take the time to look. In Mayo last year, I had my first sight of noctilucent clouds. A relatively new phenomenon, these are exceptionally bright, wispy clouds made of ice crystals that are visible only in twilight. The International Space Station frequently whizzes through our skies like a shooting star, and in Dark Sky areas you can regularly see meteor showers as spectacular as any fireworks display."
Dark Sky Preserves (DSPs) are designated by the International Dark Sky Association as areas where artificial light pollution is restricted and people can appreciate the quality of the dark night sky. Ireland has two such designations, the Dark Sky Park in Mayo - which celebrates its annual Dark Sky Festival on 2-4 November next - and the Dark Sky Reserve in Kerry.
"Almost half of the population of Ireland live in areas where artificial light is so bright that the Milky Way can't be seen," says Professor Brian Espey. "Dark Sky is a precious commodity and one that can promote sustainable tourism. The preserves we've got fit very well with the Wild Atlantic Way, and encourage off-season visitors, so the tourist potential is great."
Dublin is far from Dark Sky territory, but that hasn't stopped amateur astronomer David Grennan making some significant discoveries from the back garden of his home in Raheny. An IT analyst with CIE, he has discovered three supernovae and two asteroids using a high-spec telescope he built himself. He named one of the asteroids after his late mother, Catherine Griffin.
"One of my earliest childhood memories is craning my neck in the back garden looking up at the night sky, and instead of urging me to come in out of the cold, my mother brought me a coat to wear," he says. "Few people have a three-kilometre memorial stone orbiting between Mars and Jupiter named after them, but I did it to honour her."
Apart from making inter-galactic discoveries from his back garden observatory, David spends much of his spare time tracking Near Earth Objects, space rocks that have the capacity to pose a real threat to the planet.
"It's not a question of if, but when a major asteroid will strike," he says. "It could be 100 years or 10,000 years from now, but on average an asteroid hits Earth every 65 million years. It's been that long since the one that killed the dinosaurs, so in cosmic terms, we're due another one around now."
It may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but David suggests that, because asteroids are usually heavy in iron, it would be prudent to employ technology using a magnet to change the trajectory of such an object.
"It would take the resources of all the major superpowers combined to develop such technology, but they're not doing it," he says.
For now, however, there is no threat to our beautiful planet, only the promise of a dazzling event to light up the night sky, making this Friday a marvellous night for a moondance.
- For more information visit astronomy.ie