Weather and volcanic eruptions could eclipse tonight's rare lunar event

Tonight and into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, sky watchers will have their first opportunity in 456 years to see a total lunar eclipse occurring on the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon travels through the shadow created by the Earth, thus blocking the reflective light from the sun, which enable us to see the moon. Recent volcanic eruptions, which dumped tons of dust and ash into the atmosphere caused astronomers to predict that the moon may take on a darker than usual appearance for an eclipse.

Lunar experts from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will host two live Web chats to discuss the eclipse. On Monday, Dec. 20, from 3-4 p.m. EST, and from midnight to 5:00 a.m. EST.

According to the NASA, North and Central America should be able to view the entire show, which is expected to last three hours if skies are clear.

Total eclipse begins at 11:41 p.m. PST Monday or 2:41 a.m. EST Tuesday. The totality phase — when the moon is entirely inside Earth’s shadow — will last a little over an hour.

Veteran eclipse watchers in all of Southern California like myself, will most likely be eclipsed out of seeing the astronomical event up close and personal. Experiencing an event of cosmic proportions ourselves, it has been raining almost non-stop for five days with another three days still in the offing.

But not to worry. All is not quite lost. “Our event will go on rain or shine,” said astronomer Anthony Cook of Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory. If the local view is obstructed by clouds or rain, the Griffith Observatory will broadcast a live video stream of the rare eclipse from the Internet. The event will also be shown live by NASA from its camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.