What you need to know about the May 15th lunar eclipse

Eclipse over Des Moines

Photo: Composite of lunar eclipse stages over the Iowa State Capitol, taken by Wil Abeling.

Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines in the media – SUPER FLOWER BLOOD MOON.

Seriously, what does all that mean? Well, let’s break it down for you.

FLOWER MOON: The full moon each month has a unique name. For example, the October moon is referred to as the “Harvest Moon”. In the month of May, the full moon is called the Flower Moon. So the Flower Moon happens once a year – nothing particularly special.

SUPER MOON: Although technically true, this label is often overused (at least in my opinion). Super Moon refers to a full moon that is slightly larger than the typically full moon. It just means that it is slightly closer to the Earth than the normal full moon. Because it’s closer, it should technically appear larger. However, the important question is this…. Can I tell (with my eyes) the difference between a super moon and a regular full moon? Answer: No. How about if I use a pair of binoculars, can I tell the difference then? The answer is still no. So as cool as it sounds, the name “super moon” doesn’t actually mean anything significant for this eclipse or any other eclipse for that matter.

BLOOD MOON: This term refers to the appearance of the full moon during the full eclipse – which is scheduled for 10:30 pm to 11:50 pm. Of the three words (Flower, Super, Blood), this is the most accurate, as the moon will turn a dark reddish/orange color during the eclipse. This is caused by the moon falling into the Earth’s shadow and it will only receive a small bit of sunlight that sneaks around the edge of the dark, so its appearance is dramatically darkened.

What’s the best place to view the eclipse?

My opinion: at your home, in the front yard or back yard, whichever one has the clearest view of the sky. I say this because if you’re going to just view it with your eyes or a pair of binoculars, then there’s really no need to travel anywhere. The view will be exactly the same all across the state – so there’s no need to travel to a dark sky location. As long as you can see the moon, you’re good.

The only exception is this: if you want to be at a location where others have telescopes set up and are willing to let you get a closer look, then that would be an exception. Otherwise, this event is best seen from home.

Tips for observing the eclipse with kids

Should I wake my kids up for it?
Great question – but that’s a parent’s choice. Compared to other recent eclipses that happened in the early morning hours, this one happens at a better timeframe. Personally, I remember when my parents would wake me up for lunar eclipse, even just a glimpse of it for a few minutes.

1) Don’t plan to go out for the whole eclipse.
Just because happens between 9:30pm and 12:45am, does not mean you need to see all of it. Most lunar eclipses take hours and kids (and most parents) don’t have that much patience. It’s best to plan to make several quick trips to the window or outside.

2) There’s nothing to see at the start.
Most sources are reporting that the eclipse starts 9:30pm – and this is technically true – but there isn’t anything special happening at that time. Your best option is to wait until the eclipse has progressed.

3) If I am going to take my kids outside a few times, what times do you recommend?
I would suggest taking them outside two times: 10:00 pm and again at 10:30 pm. At 10:00 pm, you’ll be able to see that half of the moon is dark or missing. At this time, I would ask questions, like ” “does it seem different tonight?” Tell your kids, “We’ll come back outside in another 30 minutes or so and check on it again”. Then I would come back during the maximum of the eclipse – around 10:30pm. Then I would ask questions like… “What’s different? What’s changed since we saw it a little bit ago? What do you think is going on? What do you think will happen next? “

From my experience, trying to explain what’s going to kids is not as powerful as just asking questions. Let them observe it, and let them comment on it. Some kids will care less. Some will just want to back to bed. But some will stop and wonder – and they will ask “What’s going on?” or “Why did that happen?” At that point in time, then you can help them out with digging into the details of what’s going on.

If it turns out to be cloudy or staying up past sunset isn’t your thing – and you’d like a glimpse of what a lunar eclipse is like – here’s a timelapse video I made of a previous lunar eclipse over Des Moines, Iowa.

YouTube video
Timelapse video by Brian Abeling of a lunar eclipse in Des Moines, Iowa taken in Sept 2015.

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