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Author Bio

Michelle Nichols
Director of Public Observing

Michelle Nichols earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1995, and a Master of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National-Louis University in 2002. Michelle has been employed by the Adler since 1995 and has been on many staff teams to develop exhibits, planetarium shows, and fun programs and events for Adler visitors. As Director of Public Observing, Michelle leads the Adler’s various telescope and sky observing efforts, including the ‘Scopes in the City telescope outreach program, free nighttime observing in the Doane Observatory via Doane at Dusk, Adler’s telescope volunteer program, and much more.

Solar Eclipses and Lunar Eclipses Explained

Eclipse of the Sun illustration from the Adler Planetarium's collections

Header Image: Eclipse of the Sun illustration from the Adler Planetarium’s collections

There are several topics in astronomy that get lots of people excited: naked-eye visible comets, bright planets, auroras…but eclipses are generally at the top of the observing list for many of us. We love seeing the Sun or Moon look different from how they normally appear. This fall, we’ve got a partial lunar eclipse on November 19th, 2021 and a partial solar eclipse (as seen from the Chicago area) on October 14th, 2023.

Lunar Eclipses Explained

Total lunar eclipse seen in the United States on April 15th, 2014 in San Jose, California.
Image Caption: Total lunar eclipse seen in the United States on April 15th, 2014 in San Jose, California. Image Credit: NASA Ames Research Center/Brian Day

What causes a lunar eclipse? Sunlight falls on our Earth, and the Earth’s shadow is cast into space behind it—just like when the sunlight falls on you, and your shadow is cast behind you. If the Moon happens to pass through the Earth’s shadow, then we’ll see the Moon appear to darken. We call this a lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse can only happen at the phase known as Full Moon, when the arrangement in space is a line between the Sun, Earth, and Moon when the Moon is opposite the Sun in our sky. While a Full Moon happens every time the Moon orbits the Earth—12 or 13 times each calendar year—we don’t get a lunar eclipse at each Full Moon phase. Why? The Moon’s orbit with respect to the Earth is tilted a bit. Because of this tilt, usually the Moon passes a bit above or below the Earth’s shadow at Full Moon. When the lineup is exactly right and the Moon’s orbit intersects the Earth’s shadow, the Moon passes through the shadow, and we see the Moon turn brown, red, orange, or gray.

Lunar eclipses can be partial or total, depending on whether the Moon passes through part of the Earth’s shadow or the entire Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. If the Moon only passes through part of the darkest shadow area, this is a partial lunar eclipse, and if the Moon passes completely into the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow, this is a total lunar eclipse. The next lunar eclipse visible from the Chicago area will be on Friday, November 19 early in the morning before sunrise. The maximum eclipse will occur at 3:02 am CST.

How To View The November 2021 Lunar Eclipse

This Adler Planetarium infographic shows you how to view the partial lunar eclipse in Chicago, IL happening on November 19th, 2021.
Image Caption: This Adler Planetarium infographic shows you how to view the partial lunar eclipse in Chicago, IL happening on November 19th, 2021.

The full Moon will be visible in the southwestern sky when the eclipse starts at 12:02 am CST. For the next three hours, you will see the Moon change as it goes through the partial eclipse phase to the maximum eclipse. In the Chicagoland area, the partial eclipse will end at 4:47 am CST. No special equipment is required to see this eclipse at all. Just find a safe spot near you that has an open view to the southwest away from trees or houses, and enjoy! Our astronomy educators will be broadcasting live during the lunar eclipse on November 19th, and—if skies are clear—we’ll show you a live camera view of the eclipse. If you miss this eclipse, the next total lunar eclipse visible in the Chicago area is May 15-16, 2021.

Solar Eclipses Explained

When the Moon’s orbit is aligned just right for a lunar eclipse, it also means it’s aligned just right for a solar eclipse. A lunar eclipse always occurs about two weeks before or two weeks after a solar eclipse. The same parts of Earth don’t necessarily get to see both parts of the lunar-solar eclipse set, but in 2021, the Chicago area will be lucky enough to see portions of both eclipses. 

This Adler Planetarium infographic shows the phases of the Moon.
Image Caption: This Adler Planetarium infographic shows the phases of the Moon.

A solar eclipse can only happen at the phase known as New Moon, when the arrangement in space is a line between the Sun, Moon, and Earth. When the lineup is exactly right and the Moon’s orbit intersects the Sun’s position in our sky, the Moon partly or totally covers the Sun. Solar eclipses can be partial or total, depending on whether the Moon covers part or all of the Sun. If the Moon is close enough to Earth in its oval-shaped orbit, it will be big enough to completely cover the Sun, but when the Moon is farther from the Earth, the size it appears in the sky is not large enough to cover the Sun. When the Moon is too far from Earth to cover the Sun completely, we call this an annular eclipse. The word annular comes from the Latin word annulus, which means ring, referring to the ring of Sun that is left around the Moon during this type of eclipse.

To view any solar eclipse, you will need proper solar viewing glasses to safely view the Sun. Do not look directly at the Sun without certified solar eye protection.

If you have glasses or viewers left over from the 2017 solar eclipse, only use them if you have stored them away from light, heat, and humidity and you are certain they do not have any pinholes or punctures. If you aren’t sure if your viewers are safe, when in doubt, buy new ones.

@adlerplanet

Safety first when viewing solar eclipses! #SolarEclipse #SpaceThings #StuffYouShouldKnow #SummerFun #AdlerPlanetarium #AstronomyTikTok #FYP

♬ original sound – Adler Planetarium

Please note: To find exact directions and times to look for these eclipses for your specific location, visit this website. Due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions and ongoing changes to opening hours for city, county, and state parks, it is, unfortunately, impossible for us to suggest specific locations to view these eclipses in the Chicago area. If you are looking for solar viewing glasses, check out these from Rainbow Symphony.

Subscribe To Skywatch Wednesday

Tour the night sky weekly with the Adler Planetarium’s Theaters Manager Nick, who uses cutting edge visualizations, NASA images, and astrophotography to show you what you can see weekly in the night sky.

Learn From Our Astronomy Educators

Watch exclusive live episodes of Sky Observers Hangout! With our astronomy educators you’ll learn how to observe upcoming cosmic happenings, enhance your astrophotography skills and see celestial objects through a telescope virtually. On November 19 at 1:30 a.m. CDT, our astronomy educators will go live to answer your questions about eclipses, explain how lunar eclipses happen, and give you stargazing tips on where you can spot the last lunar eclipse of 2021 in your sky as it’s happening. If the weather permits, we’ll even show you live camera views of the eclipse. If you are not able to tune in live with us, you can watch recaps of the episodes on our YouTube channel! Michelle and Adriana have shown us how to take better pictures of the Moon using our smartphones, what different star colors mean, and zodiac constellations!

Please note: this blog is updated each year to reflect the most up to date information and events around upcoming lunar and solar eclipses.

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Author Bio

Michelle Nichols
Director of Public Observing

Michelle Nichols earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1995, and a Master of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National-Louis University in 2002. Michelle has been employed by the Adler since 1995 and has been on many staff teams to develop exhibits, planetarium shows, and fun programs and events for Adler visitors. As Director of Public Observing, Michelle leads the Adler’s various telescope and sky observing efforts, including the ‘Scopes in the City telescope outreach program, free nighttime observing in the Doane Observatory via Doane at Dusk, Adler’s telescope volunteer program, and much more.

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