The gang sits on the top floor of the vacation home, playing a family game called “Mafia”. I keep popping open the door, letting in the cold air as I step out to take a peek at the moon, much to everyone’s chagrin. I am on a weekend getaway with a few of my friends and their families, on the coast of North Carolina. It was sheer coincidence that the night of the blood moon was thus spent at one of the parts of the state where the skies are the darkest and, more importantly, the forecasts indicate the skies to be supremely clear. No force, not even my recently aggravated laziness, would have me miss this lunar eclipse.
Every eclipse has been shrouded in intrigue from my childhood, due to the colorful stories from mythology as well as some superstitions that had transcended generations. “Once the eclipse starts, you cannot eat till it ends”, Mom would say.
Bhagavata, one of the great mythological works in Hinduism, has a more picturesque take on the eclipse. Mythology holds that the gods got hold of amrut, the elixir of immortality, and were distributing it amongst themselves. A demon snuck into the party and tricked the gods into serving him too amidst the fray. By the time he managed to take a mouthful, the sun and the moon, who were the guards, noticed the intruder and called him out. Lord Vishnu beheaded him, but the demon did not die as he had already partaken of the elixir. The head became ‘Rahu’ and the body became ‘Ketu’. Rahu continues to pursue the sun and the moon in vengeance, and an eclipse occurs when Rahu swallows either of them. But since the head has no body attached to it, the sun and the moon manage to slip out and continue the game of cat and mice.
Since it is exceedingly cold and windy, I do not risk getting out to capture the partial eclipse. The predictions indicated that the eclipse would be at its fullest towards midnight. I sneak out at around 11:30 pm, covered head to toe except for my eyes, and set up my camera. That the moon is directly overhead doesn’t help as my camera has to point vertically upwards, as I struggle with autofocus. After some trial and error, I manage to get the focus locked on. However, every four or five bursts later, I end up having to adjust the direction of the camera as the orbiting of the moon takes the moon out of the frame in a short time.
Lore aside, the science of lunar eclipse is very straightforward. On certain full moon nights, the sun, the earth, and the moon end up perfectly aligned in a straight line. When the earth is in the middle, its shadow falls on the moon. Since the moon shines by reflecting the sunlight that falls on it, this would ideally cause the moon to go into a total blackout. However the atmosphere of the earth acts like tiny refractors and manage to send some lower frequency light (the reds) towards the moon, which is reflected back, and presto, “the lunar disc bleeds red in the desolate, dark skies…”
Some of my friends and their kids join me outside, as the eclipse becomes complete and the stars shine a bit brighter. All around me, there are sounds of awe. We stand there, under the dark skies, beaming, marveling and feeling humbled. The wind touches an unsteadying 20 mph and the temperature has dropped palpably. One by one, everyone retires to the warmth of the house, leaving just me outdoors.
Complete lunar eclipses are way more common than a complete solar eclipse, thanks to the larger size of the earth. Despite that, it feels like an achievement to have been outside and having watched this celestial event. There’s going to be another, in a couple of years, but there is no guarantee of clear skies or the absence of a pressing priority.
I hang around for a few more bursts, and fold the tripod legs, my craving for warmth finally having got the better of me. I know the rest of the drill, Rahu is not getting to swallow and digest the moon tonight.
P.S – Apparently there was a meteor strike on the moon that some astronomers captured during the eclipse. No, I don’t have a photo of that. I was fumbling with the autofocus around that time.
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