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The September 2015 ‘Supermoon’ Eclipse

Eclipsed Moon and stars – 0347 BST, 10s at ISO 1000 23mm F1.4.

Recent Lunar eclipses have been a washout for me and I wasn’t holding out much hope for the autumn 2015 ‘Supermoon’ eclipse. So when Sunday the 28th September dawned clear and sunny – a perfect, golden autumn day in the way they occasionally are up here in the English Lake District - I still wasn’t about to start raising my hopes. I spent the day evicting the summer spiders from my observatory, expecting the clouds to roll in at any moment like usual.

To my surprise, the evening weather remained warm and still, the sky only slightly hazy. An after-dinner walk around the block revealed an enormous, orangey Moon rising over the hills across the bay. I ran home for my camera, but had already missed the best of the moonrise by the time I got to a spot with a clear view.

I charged the camera batteries, collected my gear and then went to bed early, still half expecting the sky to cloud up at the last moment. But as I set my alarm, brilliant Moonlight was flooding the garden: so bright it was giving the fields opposite a faint tinge of colour instead of the usual fifty shades; maybe there was something to this Supermoon thing after all.

Getting up early was never my forte and I stumbled out of bed at two like a zombie. I tripped over the cat, nearly dropped an eyepiece. I ached for a strong coffee, but there was no time: the Moonlight seeping between the curtains was noticeably dimming. I peered out and could see a chunk already missing from the lunar disk. Conditions looked virtually perfect with just some light haze around the horizon.

The garden was Moon-bright and chill, but I was disappointed to find shadows reaching across the white plastic of my observatory dome. The dipping Moon was already behind the tall tree at the end of the garden, as I had feared it would be. I hastily resorted to plan B.

Fortunately my balcony still had a good view. I struggled upstairs with my little Takahashi FS-60Q/Teegul rig, manoeuvred it through the doors and got it roughly aligned. By then my daughter had appeared, even more groggy than me and still in pyjamas.

By half two, more than half the Moon was in the penumbra, which was taking on a bilious yellow hue. The stars were winking out all over the sky as the Moonlight faded. I was pleased that the little Takahashi mount was tracking well, despite the load of a camera. I started snapping.

0300 BST, 1s ISO 1250 F10 (Takahashi FS-60Q)

0309 BST, 1.5s ISO 1250 F10 (Takahashi FS-60Q)

Between three and three fifteen the lit Moon shrank to a brilliant sliver that took on a marked blue tone whilst the penumbra turned brick red.

Over the next half hour the full eclipse came on gradually with a very gradual transition from penumbra to umbra. But by about three thirty, the Moon had become so faint and dim it would have been all but invisible to a casual sweep of the sky. Photos show deep crimson-orange hues, but through my trusty Zeiss 7x42 binoculars it looked much darker, the colour of dried blood.

As I snapped photos, I had to keep raising the ISO setting and extend the exposure time until I was using up to twenty seconds at ISO 2000. Compare that with the ISO 200 and 1/400th I might have used for an ordinary full Moon with the same scope (the Tak FS-60Q is F10). This eclipse went really dark!

0352 BST, 8s ISO 2000 F10 (Takahashi FS-60Q) – Look carefully and you’ll see stars!

My favourite sight at lunar eclipse is the dark Moon surrounded by stars. The sky was completely black now and crammed with stars overhead and all around. Scanning around with the binoculars, I found various deep sky objects as if this were new Moon, not full. Orion hung in the east and the arms of the Great Nebula was luminously easy to pick out. Where earlier that evening the fields across the way had been bright as dawn, they were now invisible.

With the neighbours all asleep, the balcony I was viewing from was suspended in blackness, like the deepest Moon-less winter nights. The extinguished Moon seemed to excite a couple of owls in the woods across the way – they called spookily to each other and I tried to find them with the binos but it was just too dark.

0412 BST, 6.5s ISO 2000 F10 (Takahashi FS-60Q)

The eclipse ended as gradually as it had drawn in, but by quarter past four I was back to exposures of a few seconds at ISO 2000. At twenty past, the Moon’s far south-south- west was brightening rapidly, whilst the opposite side was still quite dark. The penumbral colours took on more muted, tobacco shades. Meanwhile, moonlight slowly returned to the landscape around me. The local badger took this as a cue to start his nightly scratching at my poor lawn and I took a moment to try scaring him off.

After more than two hours outside, I suddenly noticed how cold I was, particularly around my toes. Across the field some house lights had come on and I heard a car door slam and the roar of an engine. Early risers were off to work. I wondered if they took a moment to look up at the eclipse; from the irritable way they accelerated up the road, I guessed not.

I gave up photography, retired inside and sent my flagging daughter back to her bed (modern teenagers have no staying power). For the remainder of the eclipse, I snuggled into my big old armchair alone in the dark and enjoyed watching Earth’s shadow gradually draw away through my binoculars.

As the shadow line reached Mares Serenetatis, Tranquilitatis and Nectaris it seemed to become lumpy, looking like a jagged bite, or perhaps as if the Moon were sliding behind a storm cloud. I couldn’t decide if this were a real feature of the edge of the penumbra or (more likely) due to all the albedo variations in that part of the Moon.

At the very last, well after five, my daughter got up again to feed the cat, who was howling mournfully, apparently disturbed by the strange changes in the Moonlight. She took a quick last look at the Moon, harrumphed and went back to bed. I followed soon afterwards - well pleased with one of the best lunar eclipses I’ve seen.

The morning after. Takahashi’s FS-60Q/Teegul had proved a perfect portable imaging rig for the eclipse – sharp optics, flat field, ideal focal length and stable tracking.