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Blink and You’ll Miss It: Shortest Lunar Eclipse of the Century Hits Turtle Island

Early Saturday morning April 4, starting at 3:15 Pacific time on the West Coast, the moon will fall into Earth's shadow in a total eclipse.
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It may be a blood moon this weekend, but the length of the phenom will make it more like a paper cut.

Nevertheless it will be worth watching early Saturday morning April 4 (that’s Friday night for you partiers) to see the moon pass through Earth’s shadow in the third of four lunar eclipses that form the tetrad we have been experiencing since last year.

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The fun begins in the dead of night on the Pacific coast, where sky watchers can see the moon start to move into Earth’s shadow, starting imperceptibly at around 2 a.m. and becoming more visible beginning at 3:15. On the East Coast of Turtle Island, the moon will just be setting when it starts, so by the time the eclipse is in full swing, the moon will have dropped out of view. But even the partial eclipse will be something to see.

“East of the Mississippi River, the eclipse will be interrupted by sunrise. People can see only a partial eclipse,” says NASA. “West of the Mississippi River, people can see the whole thing, including totality.”

Most of Alaska will see full totality, while much of the rest of the West coast will see an almost-full partial, with the moon setting just as it moves into Earth’s shadow. In Hawaii and New Zealand, the eclipse will occur when the moon is high, according to Sky and Telescope.

" ‘Totality’ is when the moon is fully inside Earth's shadow,” NASA explains and illustrates in the video below. “Some total eclipses last for more than an hour. In this case, however, totality spans just four minutes and 43 seconds—a result of the fact that the moon is skimming the outskirts of Earth's shadow rather than passing centrally through it.”

Because of the shortness, time is key, and NASA advises being outside no later than 4:58 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday April 4 to witness the eclipse on the West Coast. But the moon starts edging into Earth’s shadow at 2:01 a.m. Pacific time, so the full show starts then. Since that is 5:01 a.m. on the East Coast, it’s easy to see why the sun will interrupt, since the entire process lasts three hours and 29 minutes, according to Timeanddate.com.

This is the third in a tetrad of four total lunar eclipses, meaning they are happening within six months of one another. The first two were last year, and there is one more this fall. Eclipses will not be this close together again for another 20 years, says National Geographic.

There is even a chance for some people to catch a glimpse of the eclipsed moon on one horizon, and the emerging sun on the other in a phenomenon called a selenelion, says Earthsky.com—which would seem impossible, since the whole point of an eclipse is that the earth is blocking the sun from hitting the moon. However, on rare occasions, from just the right spot, the image of the sun is refracted by Earth’s atmosphere so that we see it before it has actually risen. The spot this year lies roughly along the Mississippi River in the U.S., and cuts through Asia on the other side—where the spectacle will be taking place at sunset/moonrise as the moon emerges from (rather than enters) Earth’s shadow.

The next and last blood moon is on September 28—also the year’s biggest super moon.

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Below, NASA's video explaining all about this lunar eclipse.