Ordinarily I'd have been out of luck: I live near Boston, where the event was unobservable. But good fortune had brought me to Tucson, Arizona, to attend a joint meeting of the Astronomical League and International Dark-Sky Association.
It had been partly cloudy the night before, so I wondered what kind of weather dawn would bring. Stepping to the balcony outside my hotel room, I immediately saw the Moon low on the southwestern horizon. The upper-right half was missing, sliced away by its slow crawl through Earth's umbra. Sweet!
I'd brought my Nikon DSLR along in the hopes of capturing the Moon's damaged disk, and I must have looked completely suspicious as I snapped away in the dim light.
More or less satisfied with the results, I decided to watch for an uncommon eclipse phenomenon known as selenelion, seeing the Sun near the horizon and the eclipsed Moon near the opposite horizon at the same time. I'd been tipped off to this possibility by an email from Ray Brooks, an amateur living in southeastern Arizona.
During a lunar eclipse, the Sun and Moon are almost exactly 180° apart in the sky. But refraction near the horizon, combined with looking after mid-eclipse (when the Moon's orbital motion has carried it a bit eastward and thus higher up in the sky), meant that I might see both the rising Sun and the setting Moon simultaneously. It was worth a shot — what the heck, I was already up.
Brooks planned to drive to the top of a nearby mountain with clear views to the northeast and southwest. He calculated that the depressed horizon should let him glimpse selenelion for about 8 minutes before the Moon dipped from sight. I didn't have time to find a mountaintop, and while I had a great view of the Moon, seeing sunrise was a different matter. Low clouds and civilization blocked my view to the northeast.
So I jumped in my car in the hope of finding a clearing. Heading out of town, I stopped alongside the sprawling Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where hundreds of aging warplanes rest in neat rows. Hmm, maybe I could glimpse the setting Moon, still in eclipse, amid the planes as the rising Sun illuminated the gray metal of their tails.
But it wasn't to be. I had a clear view of the gradually reddening lunar disk, starting to set behind distant mountains that included the famous Kitt Peak. But the Sun wasn't rising fast enough. Above the Moon I saw the Belt of Venus, the telltale pink-and-purple band marking the edge of Earth's shadow projected into the atmosphere. Selenelion just wasn't going to happen for me — too bad. The Moon slipped from view, and it was over.
My effort wasn't a total bust, however. The consolation prize: sunrise was gorgeous.
And Ray Brooks? He awoke at 1 a.m. in order to reach the summit of a 9,000-foot mountaintop for his attempt. Once there, he and wife Dori watched a "dazzling gorgeous hot pink sunrise" over Cooks Peak, 100 miles away, then swung around to watch the Moon set in the southwest. "We got 10 minutes 21 seconds of selenelion!" he exults.
Click here to see a selenelion selection (try saying that fast three times) of photos that amateur Jörg Schoppmeyer took from Keys View in California's Joshua Tree National Park.