Hazy sky spoils eclipse party

By By Melissa Oveson and By Melissa Oveson

By Melissa Oveson

Although clouds blocked their view, students and community members gathered atop the Physics Building hoping to catch a glimpse of last week’s lunar eclipse.

A total lunar eclipse happens when the Earth aligns with the sun and the moon, placing the moon in the Earth’s shadow. Lunar eclipses can vary in time, with the full duration ranging from two to four hours. Totality, when the moon is completely in Earth’s shadow, lasts between 15 and 50 minutes.

Wednesday night’s lunar eclipse was visible from the Americas, Africa and Europe.

“There are actually two or three lunar eclipses a year,” said Paul Ricketts, a senior in physics who operates the U’s observatory. “But this is the last total eclipse seen from Utah until 2010.”

During a lunar eclipse, the moon appears to take on a dark orange or reddish color from indirect rays of sunlight reaching the moon’s surface and the amount of dust in the atmosphere. This would be hard to see with all the bright lights around campus and downtown, Ricketts said. People in rural areas or with telescopes, such as those at the observatory, can see the color best.

Heidi Frank, event coordinator in the department of physics, said that the lunar eclipse, which occurred around 6 p.m., was important because it happened at a time when most people were still awake to view it. She joked with Ricketts about being one of few fanatics who set their alarms to witness an eclipse at 4 a.m. in August.

Taylor Cunningham, an exercise and sport science major, said he was disappointed that clouds covered the eclipse. His interest in the eclipse came from an astronomy class he enrolled in this semester. Although he didn’t get to see the moon, Cunningham observed Mars and several stars throughout the night.

In addition to the eclipse event, the observatory offers star parties several times a month to students and community members.

“There really is a big mix of people that come here,” Ricketts said. “Unless it’s 6 degrees outside, people will always come.”

With a growing interest in astronomy at the U, the physics department is committed to extending the astronomy program. Frank said the department is hiring five new professors and hopes to have an astronomy major available for students within the next five years.

“Astronomy is the pop culture of science,” Frank said. “It’s a popular area because people believe it’s not as scary as physics.”

The program offers an astronomy minor that became available to students in the Fall of 2006, Ricketts said, adding that most students who pursue the minor are math and science majors because the fields greatly overlap.

Although some students were disappointed by Wednesday’s hazy sky, many said they would be back to observe other events occurring around the universe.

“I like watching stars, it’s interesting,” said Bidzina Kekelia, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. “I want to come back and see more.”

[email protected]