Total Lunar Eclipse, March 2007
Saturday, 3rd March, saw the only total lunar eclipse visible from South Africa this year. A team of astronomers and engineers from the SAAO braved the initially rainy weather to travel to two schools in Cape Town to explain the mechanics of the lunar eclipse and to give learners the opportunity to view the eclipse in detail through small telescopes.
Following their initial classroom lecture, approximately twenty students from St Cyprians School, and twenty from Rustenberg High School were treated to the spectacle of viewing the eclipse up close through 6 inch reflector telescopes. Viewing began around 10.40pm local time after a miraculous gap in the clouds and rain! The Earth's shadow appeared to cut a bite out of the Moon as it slowly began to travel across the Moon's surface. As the eclipse progressed further and the "bite" got bigger the Moon slowly changed from its usual colour exhibiting a beautiful deep red colour.
Unfortunately, it began to cloud over again around midnight local time before totality was reached (the point where the Moon is completely encompassed within the Earth's shadow). This failed to dampen the students' enthusiasm as they scrambled to catch their final glimpses and record their memories via camera cellphones just before bedtime!
In addition to the observing activities, the learners shared their experiences with teachers, astronomers and students in Germany via a live webchat skypecast. Students from both hemispheres compared their view of the eclipse via animated and detailed descriptions and astronomers based both in Cape Town and Germany answered the learners many questions. The nights events for St Cyprians students concluded at around midnight localtime, however the SAAO team continued with the skypecast discussions well into the early hours of Sunday morning and managed a few more glimpses of the eclipse before the weather totally closed in around 12.30am.
The ensuing skypecast involved astronomers based in South Africa and Germany together with amateur observers from amongst other places Canada, Brazil and the UK. Astronomers answered queries relating to the total lunar eclipse and also took time to describe other astronomical phenomena such as solar eclipses and planetary transits. Despite the inconvenient time of the webcast it was a huge success with people logging in to join the discussions and to exchange photographs of the eclipse.