Fun science: How to make a lunar eclipse at home

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Early Friday morning, a partial lunar eclipse will be occurring. If the clouds cooperate, we should be able to see it here in North Carolina — but only if you’re up very early.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon, Earth, and sun are all lined up, with the Earth’s shadow covering up the moon. There are two partial phases since there are two parts of Earth’s shadow: the penumbra and the umbra.

The partial phase with Friday’s lunar eclipse will begin at 2:18 a.m. when the moon enters Earth’s outer shadow (the penumbra). When this happens, the moon will only look slightly darker in color.

While this won’t be a total lunar eclipse, most of the moon will be in the Earth’s inner shadow (the umbra). This will give the moon a slight reddish look, which you will notice near the peak eclipse time at 4:02 a.m.

Because the moon is at its farthest point away from the Earth in its orbit, this will be a long-duration lunar eclipse, with the moon finally emerging out of the Earth’s outer shadow at 5:47 a.m.

So, to understand more how a lunar eclipse works, here’s a fun craft and experiment you can do with your family!

You’ll need: 

  • At least two styrofoam balls of different sizes: one to be the moon and one to be the Earth. You can make one for the sun, as well, but for this experiment, you don’t need a physical sun.
  • A flashlight to act as the sun
  • Three dowel rods (optional)

Have two people either hold the Earth and moon in a nearly straight line or use the dowel rods to prop them up. Make sure you turn out the lights so you can see the full effect.

Turn on the flashlight and shine it toward the Earth. Notice because the Earth is larger than the moon, the shadow totally takes over. This would be a total eclipse!

If you move the flashlight to the left or right, you’ll notice the two shadows we mentioned before: the outer shadow, and the inner shadow, or the penumbra and umbra.

In real life, it would be the Earth moving around the Sun (and the moon moving around the Earth) but for our experiment, it’s much easier to move the flashlight. However, if you’re doing this with multiple people, to make it more realistic whoever is the Sun should stay in place, and the Earth and moon should move around them to create the same effect. You still learn about the eclipse no matter which method you choose!

So next time you hear about an eclipse, think of this experiment and how you were able to see the Earth’s two shadows on the moon!

We will experience another total solar eclipse in April 2024. To learn how that works, just do this experiment again, but put the moon in front of the Sun so the moon’s shadow falls on the Earth.

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