A Full Moon will turn an eerie shade of crimson for people in the western hemisphere (thats us!) late Wednesday and early Thursday, recreating the eclipse that saved Cristoforo Colombo (a.k.a. Christopher Columbus) and his men more than five centuries ago.
In 1504, Columbus and his boys were stranded on the coast of Jamaica. The explorers were running out of food and faced with increasingly hostile locals who were refusing to provide them with any more supplies.
Looking at an astronomical almanac compiled by a German mathematician, Columbus realised that a total eclipse of the Moon would occur on February 29, 1504. He called the native leaders and warned them if they did not cooperate, he would make the Moon disappear from the sky the following night.
The warning, of course, came true, prompting the terrified locals to beg Columbus to restore the Moon – which he did, in return for as much food as his men needed. He and the crew were rescued on June 29, 1504.
In a lunar eclipse, the Sun, Earth and Moon are directly aligned and the Moon swings into the cone of shadow cast by the Earth. However the Moon does not become invisible, as there is still residual light that is deflected towards it by our atmosphere. Most of this refracted light is in the red part of the spectrum and as a result the Moon, seen from Earth, turns a coppery, orange or even brownish hue.
Lunar eclipses have long been associated with superstitions and signs of ill omen, especially in battle. The defeat of King Darius III by Alexander the Great was foretold by soothsayers when the Moon turned blood-red a few days earlier.
The last total lunar eclipse took place on August 28, 2007. The next will take place on December 21, 2010. Mark your calendars.