Last January, people of all ages came out of their homes to view a rare celestial event - the super blue blood moon. If you’re interested in learning more about the phenomena (minus all the scientific jargon), we’ve broken down the scientific reasoning about this marvel of the universe. Read on to find out why it happens and when it will appear next.
The super blue blood moon is a rare celestial phenomenon that occurs when three lunar events overlap: the super moon, the blue moon and the blood moon. To understand these three events, we must first learn about eclipses.
An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when a celestial body is temporarily concealed. This can happen either when one celestial body passes into the shadow of another body, or when another celestial body comes between the said body and the viewer. The super blue blood moon is essentially a well-timed lunar eclipse - when the moon gets directly behind the earth and gets completely overshadowed by it. When this happens, the sun, earth and the moon are in perfect alignment, and this occurrence is called a syzygy.
Lunar eclipses can also be of two kinds: a total lunar eclipse happens when the moon passes through the innermost and darkest part of the earth's shadow, called the umbra, while a partial lunar eclipse occurs when the moon only passes through the outer and lighter regions of earth’s shadows called the penumbra.
However, it is important to note that a super blue blood moon can only take place during a total lunar eclipse.
A blue moon usually refers to the second full-moon night in a calendar month. The gap between two full moon appearances is usually 29 to 30 days, so a full moon twice in a month is a rare phenomenon. According to NASA, the next blue moon will appear on May 18, 2019. Fun fact: the term ‘once in a blue moon’ came around because the blue moon is such a rare phenomenon!
The super moon is a phenomenon that occurs when the moon appears to be abnormally large in the sky. We’re all aware that the moon is a satellite of the earth, but its orbit is not a perfect circle, owing to factors like tidal or gravitation forces that constantly pull the moon. So when the moon is in its perigee--its closest approach to the earth--it is called a super moon. That is why the moon appears larger and brighter because it is orbiting particularly close to the earth at that time! While the last super moon was on February 19, 2019 you can catch the next one on March 21, 2019.
A blood moon occurs when the moon is in total lunar eclipse, and appears to be a reddish-brown colour. Wondering where the reddish hue comes from? During the total eclipse, while the moon is fully in the earth’s shadow, a little bit of light from the Earth's sunrise and sunset falls on the moon. These light waves get scattered by the time they reach the moon and become red in colour. When this light hits the surface of the moon, it appears red. A blood moon usually appears twice every three years, with the last one being on January 21, 2019.
Since the super blue blood moon is an extremely rare occurrence, the last one was observed on January 31, 2018, after a wait of 35 long years. As the Pacific Ocean was facing the moon during the time of the eclipse, central and eastern Asia (including most of Siberia), Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand and most of Australia got a good view of this moon during the evening. The total eclipse lasted for 77 minutes. Before that, we witnessed the super blue blood moon in the month of December in 1982.
Although the last super blue blood moon was witnessed approximately 35 years ago, the wait for the next such occurrence is still quite--even if not exactly--as long. To catch the next super blue blood moon, you’ll have to wait for another 18 years, for it is expected to occur on January 31, 2037.
Moons are ‘natural satellites’, celestial objects that orbit planets (which is why man-made satellites are often referred to as artificial moons). Fun fact: there are a total of 170 moons in our solar system. While larger, gaseous planets have a large number of moons, Jupiter has 62 and Saturn has 33. Two planets in our solar system, Mercury and Venus, don’t have any moons. Coming to the remaining planets, Mars has two, Uranus has 27, Neptune has 13 and Pluto, like the Earth, has only one moon.
According to scientists, most moons, including the Earth’s, were thought to have been born during massive collisions of celestial objects early in the history of the solar system. Other moons might have been formed from a cloud of gas and dust that surrounded the giant planets when they were pulling in material owing to their strong gravitational force. The remaining, even smaller moons, scientists speculate, are comets or asteroids that were captured when they passed too close to a large planet and got caught up in its orbit.
If you’ve heard the term ‘blood moon’ and immediately thought of a rain of blood, then firstly- you’re not alone and second, the phenomenon has nothing to do with blood! Like we previously explained, the moon gets eclipsed as it enters the Earth’s umbra (the darkest shadow). But instead of turning completely dark, the rays from the sun falling on the Earth get reflected onto the moon, which attributes to its reddish hue.
However, the blood moon has several astrological and spiritual significances. Since the moon is said to have effects on the tides, as well as your moods, expect it to intensify during the blood moon. Astrologer Lisa Stardust said that the lunar eclipse serves to bring a deeper understanding within ourselves, elevating our minds to the highest power.
According to several astrologers, an eclipse is a perfect time to take a leap of faith on a decision you might have been putting off for a while. Eclipses symbolise the end of something that’s already in its final stages and the start of new beginnings and fresh perspectives. They might push you out of your comfort zone, but they ultimately symbolise a period of great personal growth.
Besides spiritual symbolism, there’s also a lot of superstition revolving around the blood moon in several ancient cultures and religions. Since most people were unaware of the scientific concept behind the blood moon, in ancient times, it was often considered an ominous symbol of evil, foreshadowing death and destruction. In fact, many cultures even correlate the blood moon to the catastrophic doomsday-like events.
A blue moon, which is the scientific term for the second full moon in one calendar month, doesn’t hold true to its name. Several people get confused when they witness the blue moon but don’t see it turn blue. While the phenomenon might be referred to as ‘blue moon’, the moon doesn’t actually turn blue. In fact, it doesn’t change colour at all! While certainly agree that a blue-hued moon would look cool, we might have to wait for a cosmic miracle for that to happen!
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This story was updated in March 2019.