Eclipses galore!

It seems like ages since the last eclipse of the Sun or Moon from the UK and then there are two in close succession! The total eclipse of the Moon which occurred during the Dec 21st winter solstice, was a troublesome beast for much of the UK because of cloud and general freezing conditions covering much of the UK. The Sky at Night wanted to cover the event but the weather was very difficult to predict. As usual, it was down to me to advise on whether or not I thought we'd get clear skies. The forecasts were so changeable around that time that using them, I gave us a 30% chance at best. It was agreed that the best way forward was for me to liase with one of our camera crew at 3am on the morning of the eclipse (the partial phase started at 06:32) and to give the thumbs up or down. 
 
Excitement got the better of me and I was up at 2am looking at a fuzzy full Moon behind variable cloud. Then at 02:30, a clear gap came along. Looking at the infra red satellite weather forecast, I could see some holes in the thick cloud which was approaching my location, so at 3am I sent Rob, our cameraman a text telling him to come over to Selsey. 
 
We agreed to meet on Selsey West Beach, where we'd get a good view of the eclipse if the clouds did part. The Moon was due to set in the north west during totality so we took advantage of the northwesterly seaward horizon visible from West Beach. We both arrived at the beach at 04:30 and the clouds were back - this time thick enough to hid the full Moon completely. However, out to sea I could see pools of moonlight which were heading our way. As time marched on, the pools of light came closer and the clouds began to break up. I was stunned at the beauty of the cold sea illuminated by distinct moonbeams of light. 
 
Broken cloud gave way to clear skies at just after 05:30 and fingers were crossed (well, in reality they were too cold to be crossed!) that the clear would last through the eclipse - which indeed it did! Amazingly we got our cold footage of this amazing solstice eclipse, and saw the entire inward partial phase of the event. As the last sliver of Moon was covered by the Earth's shadow, something truly remarkable happened which I wasn't expecting. The Moon vanished from sight. Neither Rob nor I could see it with our eyes and it was even invisible to my camera! It might be the case that it slipped into a low fog bank close to the horizon - who knows?
 
So that was the solstice total eclipse of the Moon. If you want to see my exploits on the beach, look out for the next episode of the Sky at Night http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mk7h

Now, if you were unlucky enough to miss this particular eclipse, and unfortunately many were, there's another chance to see an eclipse on 4 January. This is a partial eclipse of the Sun and is visible as the Sun is rising. If the weather is looking a bit iffy, remember never give up until the event is actually over (09:30) because there's always a chance! If the skies are clear for you, please make sure you only look at the Sun through a certified solar filter. Even though it'll look harmless as it's coming up above the horizon, it's not! Always take the utmost care of your eyes! 

It just remains for me to sign off my first blog entry by wishing you all a fantastic Christmas and an equally superb New Year. I hope you really enjoy the astronomical wonders which will be coming your way in 2011!

Pete Lawrence 

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