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Penumbral lunar eclipses explained

During a penumbral lunar eclipse, the Moon travels through the much fainter, outer part of the Earth's shadow . Because parts of the Moon are still exposed to some direct sunlight, this type of eclipse is often mistaken for a normal full Moon.

Illustration image
A normal Full Moon or a penumbral lunar eclipse?
A penumbral lunar eclipse can be mistaken for a normal Full Moon (pictured here).
©iStockphoto.com/Hydromet

Although the Moon is a dark object, it can be seen in the sky most of the time because its surface reflects the Sun's rays back to Earth. A penumbral lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth moves between the Sun and Moon but the three celestial bodies do not form a perfectly straight line. The Moon then travels through the outer part of the Earth's shadow (penumbra). This means that all of the Moon's visible surface still receives some direct sunlight - but the Earth obscures parts of the Sun, as seen from the Moon.

What happens if the Moon dips into the darkest part of the Earth's shadow?

Unlike solar eclipses, which can only be seen along a narrow path on Earth, partial eclipses of the Moon can be observed all across the night side of Earth because observers are situated on the same celestial body that casts the shadow. For this reason, the probability to witness a lunar eclipse from any one point on Earth is much higher compared to solar eclipses, even though both occur in similar intervals.

When does a penumbral lunar eclipse occur?

A partial lunar eclipse can be observed at night and during Full Moon when

  • the Moon is near one of its orbital nodes so Sun, Earth and Moon roughly form a straight line,
  • and the observer is located on the night side of Earth.

Upcoming Penumbral Lunar Eclipses

DatesVisibility Map/Path of the eclipse
Mar 23, 2016
Sep 16, 2016
Feb 10 / Feb 11, 2017
Jan 10, 2020
Jun 5, 2020
Jul 5, 2020
Nov 30, 2020
May 5, 2023

More details about upcoming Eclipses

The Moon's orbit and lunar nodes

The Earth revolves around the Sun and the Moon circles the Earth. During Full Moon, the Earth passes roughly between Moon and Sun. However, in most cases the three celestial bodies do not form a completely straight line, so the Moon is not eclipsed.

The reason why lunar eclipses do not happen every Full Moon is that the lunar orbital plane - the imaginary flat surface whose outer rim is formed by the Moon's path around Earth - runs at an angle of approximately 5 degrees to the Earth's orbital plane around the Sun (ecliptic). The points where the two orbital planes meet are called lunar nodes. Only if the Moon appears near one of the two lunar nodes during Full Moon can a lunar eclipse be observed from the Earth's night side.

The type and magnitude of the lunar eclipse depends on how precisely Sun, Earth and Moon line up. A penumbral lunar eclipse can be observed if the three form an almost straight line.

What happens if the Earth moves precisely between Sun and Moon?

The Earth's shadow

Like any other object's shadow, the Earth's shadow consists of three different areas: the innermost and darkest part (umbra), the lighter, outer part (penumbra), and a partly shaded area beyond the umbra (antumbra). During a penumbral lunar eclipse, the Moon travels through the Earth's penumbra.

Did you know...?

The size of the eclipsed portion of the Moon's surface (magnitude) is the same irrespective of the observer's location on the night side of Earth. However, because observers on the southern hemisphere stand “upside-down” compared to observers on the northern hemisphere, they also see the Moon “upside-down”. The orientation of a lunar eclipse and the direction in which the shadow appears to move across the Moon's surface can therefore vary according to latitude.

Topics: Astronomy, Eclipses, Moon, Earth, Sun

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All about lunar eclipses

  1. Types of solar and lunar eclipses
  2. Total lunar eclipses
  3. Partial lunar eclipses
  4. Penumbral lunar eclipses
  5. How to view a lunar eclipse

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