Lunar lovers turn out to see supermoon, total eclipse

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Call it the Supermoon. The Blood Moon. Whatever you want.

NOVI - SEPTEMBER 27: Clouds start to clear during a lunar eclipse Sunday, September 25, 2015 in metro Detroit. (Photo by Bryan Mitchell/Special to The Detroit News)

It was there — somewhere behind the clouds. You just had to be patient.

A rare occurrence Sunday night pulled untold numbers of people away from their TVs and other events that normally would have occupied their time: The supermoon coinciding with a total lunar eclipse.

More than 300 people paid up to $18 to be part of a “Total Lunar Eclipse” party at the Cranbrook Institute of Science on Sunday night, many of them bringing their own telescopes.

“We were worried we weren’t going to see anything because of the clouds,” said Nathan Wray of Troy, accompanied by his wife and three daughters. “But then it came out. It’s pretty red.”

Cheers went up around 9:30 when cloudy skies parted. Shortly after 10 p.m. — as advertised by astronomers — there was a total lunar eclipse.

The Cranbrook Institute of Science Planetarium. Visitors sitting in the dark planetarium looking at the stars and moon. Raymond Bullock is the program presenter sets up the program inside the planetarium. Photo by Charles V. Tines, The Detroit News.

“It’s amazing,” said Ryan Heilman, a Lake Orion attorney, who attended with his wife, Cindy, and two daughters, Nadine and Sara. “The kids are really enjoying it.”

Heilman said if his family hadn’t attended the party his daughters would be sleeping in bed and he and his wife would “be watching TV or reading” at home.

“It’s a rare occurrence and pretty exciting,” said Michael Narlock, the institute’s astronomer and keeper of its high-powered telescope.

A person happening to look up at the sky starting at 10:11 p.m.— barring cloud cover — had a chance of glimpsing the reddish-looking moon, which was to appear slightly bigger than normal — about 14 percent — as it rotated so close to the Earth that it became lost in the Earth’s shadow.

It’s been 33 years, since 1982, such a happening came at the same time as a lunar eclipse. And it will 2033 be before we Earthlings get another such close-up. So hopeful stargazers certainly weren’t going to be discouraged by a few clouds Sunday night.

“I’d just be home watching the Lions lose on TV,” cracked 70-year-old Mike West of Ferndale, who said his wife, Mary, “told me where I was going tonight.”

Mary explained she had always wanted to visit the Cranbrook Institute of Science and said she was impressed by its exhibit halls. When asked if she had a telescope at home, she said, “yes but its been in a box for 20 years.”

“The neighbors get mad when we pull it out,” joked her husband.

Jonathan Kade, president of the Warren Astronomical Society, said he and 20 members had their own telescopes set outside the science museum to share any viewings with the public.

NOVI - SEPTEMBER 27: Blood moon seen through a tree changing color for fall Sunday, September 25, 2015 in metro Detroit. (Photo by Bryan Mitchell/Special to The Detroit News)

Science fiction author “Robert Heinlein wrote this event is like ‘All the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets at the same time’,” Kade said.

The eclipse began at 9:07 p.m. as the Earth’s shadow moved across the moon. By 10:11 p.m. the eclipse was expected to be complete and reddish in color. The moon was expected to be in full shadow until 11:23 p.m — about 1 hour and 12 minutes — and out of Earth’s shadow at about 12:27 a.m.

“It was better than I expected, exceeded my expectations,” assessed Dave Brown, a Farmington information technology engineer as he headed for his car.

When asked what he would have been doing if not watching the sky, Brown replied: “Sleeping.”

Even during a supermoon, when it looks bigger and brighter than usual, the moon is still about 220,000 miles away. In fact, it will be the closest full moon of the year, about 30,000 miles closer than the average distance.

Many stargazers, professional and amateur alike, dislike the term “supermoon,” noting the visible difference between a moon and supermoon is slight to all but the most faithful observers.

“It’s not like the difference between an ordinary man and Superman,” said Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. “It really ought to be called a tiny, slightly little bit bigger moon, rather than the supermoon.”

There won’t be another total lunar eclipse until 2018.

This eclipse marks the end of a tetrad, or series of four total lunar eclipses set six months apart. This series began in April 2014.

The 21st century will see eight of these tetrads, an uncommonly good run. From 1600 to 1900, there were none.

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The Associated Press contributed.