Though without his usual degree of scientific rigor, Josh Cochran is certain of one thing: "I'm certain that the red color will be because the moon is a Kansas City Chiefs fan."
The astronomer and science teacher at the PSU-Greenbush Astrophysical Observatory, like many others in the Four-States Area, will be happy to see red as the Chiefs host the AFC championship game Sunday against the New England Patriots. But as that game approaches its final seconds, a special celestial display will begin.
A total lunar eclipse, a shorter distance between the moon and Earth and the timing of the calendar will combine for the Sunday night sky to feature a "super blood wolf moon."
At about 9:34 p.m., the shadow of the Earth will appear on the moon's edge and slowly grow. By the time the shadow overtakes the entire moon, at about 10:41 p.m., it will take on a blood-like, deep red color for about 62 minutes.
Because the moon is at perigee, the moon will appear a little bit bigger in the sky. And because it's the first full moon of the new year, it is sometimes known as a wolf moon.
Depending on the weather, this eclipse will be visible in North and South America, Greenland, Great Britain and most of the western portions of Europe and Africa. Reports Friday night from the National Weather Service forecast mostly clear skies and a low temperature of about 27 degrees.
So while it will be chilly, chances are good for many to witness Sunday's eclipse, especially with its early start time. Cochran said lunar eclipses are one of the most accessible astronomical events to view — anyone who wants to see it can do so without traveling to a remote, dark location.
"This is astronomy for everybody," Cochran said. "There's no fancy, difficult stuff to do. The other nice thing about this event is that it's extremely predictable and gives a good margin for error. A lot of astronomy things require looking at an exact point. But an eclipse, you can just look outside sometime. It's a great way to get started in astronomy."
Catching a meteor shower is the next step in catching astronomical events, Cochran said. While it doesn't require any special instruments, it does require finding a dark place and the ability to remain watching the sky outside. Meteor showers during summer months ensure more comfortable weather, he said.
Marketing the moon
The "super" aspect of Sunday's super blood wolf moon is not a new phenomena, astronomically speaking. Cochran said the moon's orbit around the Earth is not a perfect circle — it's elliptical, which means at some points it will be closer to the Earth than others. (The moon's farthest distance from the Earth is called "apogee.")
Technically, the moon will be bigger in the sky, but it will not look overwhelmingly big, Cochran said.
"This effect has been going on for millennia, but we've only recently coined the phrase 'super moon,'" Cochran said. "It will be about 15 percent bigger in the sky, which is not a significant amount. If you didn't have someone to tell you the moon was larger, you wouldn't notice."
The effect of perigee will be better seen before the eclipse begins — as the moon rises, it will appear bigger than usual. That is an optical illusion based on the moon's virtual appearance close to identifiable objects, such as trees and buildings.
The "wolf" part of the name is more of a nod to history, Cochran said, as are names such as "harvest moon" and "blue moon." There is no way to identify visually whether a moon is any one of those types, he said.
"There may be nothing scientific about those names, but they give credence to an important idea," Cochran said. "The moon plays a major role in creating our calendar. Why are months roughly 30 days? Because of the cycle of the moon, and that's where our calendar has its roots."