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Skywatchers brace for mildly interesting celestial event

The upcoming lunar eclipse won't be flashy or dramatic. It will offer a faint shading of the moon's southern portion. 

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A super moon rises behind a grazing cow in a pasture near Lecompton, Kan., Sept. 27, 2015. A penumbral eclipse will shade a portion of the moon on Mar. 22.

Orlin Wagner/AP/File

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Tired of flashy solar eclipses? The moon has something more subtle prepared: a penumbral lunar eclipse.

Before dawn on Wednesday, a full moon hanging in the sky will be partially obscured by Earth’s shadow. The cosmic event will be visible for much of the globe, although best viewing will be in the Pacific region, including parts of the western United States.

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Here's the catch – even if you watch it, you might have a hard time spotting it.

The upcoming eclipse will be a penumbral one. Earth’s faint outer shadow will reach the surface of the moon and partly obscure it, but the darker, heavier inner shadow, the umbra, won’t reach. The result will be only a moderate smudging of the southern portion of the moon.

Certainly less flashy than 2015’s Blood Moon, the penumbral lunar eclipse is still interesting for NASA scientists.

NASA tracks and studies all eclipses. The scientists use the events as opportunities to conduct closer studies on the sun and moon. During the total solar eclipse earlier this month, scientists were able to get a rare glimpse of the sun’s corona, a gaseous envelope around the sun that is much hotter than its surface.

Lunar eclipses offer similar scientific opportunities, according to NASA. Scientists in the past have used the eclipses to gather more data about the composition of the moon. They also measure the temperature of the shaded surface to see how quickly it cools without sunlight.

Non-scientist observers won’t need telescopes or equipment to see the eclipse. The eclipse will start at 2:39 a.m. PDT and last for around four hours, reaching its darkest and most visible point at 4:47 a.m. PDT, according to NASA. Observers will see the southern portion of the moon darken in contrast to the rest of its bright surface.

Observers in Pacific Ocean territories, including New Zealand, Japan, and parts of Australia will be able to see the entire eclipse. But other more eastern parts of the globe will experience sunrise before the eclipse is over. Europe, Africa, and parts of South America will not able to see the event at all, according to NASA.

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Don't worry, better eclipse viewing opportunities are coming later this year. September will bring an annular solar eclipse, which will appear like a halo around the moon, and a second penumbral lunar eclipse. The second lunar eclipse of the year will be visible nearly everywhere except North and South America on Sept. 16.

For East Coast skywatchers, Jupiter could offer some solace, as the planet will shine brightly in the eastern sky.

The next total lunar eclipse will be on Jan. 31, 2018, according to NASA.


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