Texting campaign surrounds lunar eclipse

Science, like many things in life, can be more fun when you share it with others.

With that in mind, JPL has launched a new Internet and text message campaign to help those viewing Monday night's lunar eclipse share the experience with the world.

Barring cloudy skies, the first total eclipse of the moon in three years will be visible throughout North America from about 11:40 p.m. Monday through just before 1 a.m. Tuesday.

Those who go out for a look can use their cell phones' texting and Internet functions to find out what others are making of the experience through JPL's "I'm there: lunar eclipse campaign," which allows sky gazers to become part of in an interactive map and live comment feed at a special lunar eclipse web page.

Text "IMTHERE" to 67463 and you'll receive a reminder to view the eclipse on Monday. After arriving at your viewing spot, text back your Zip Code and JPL will pinpoint that location on that web page's digital map.

The site will also feature comments received about the eclipse via text and tweet as well as links to astronomy resources and instructions for uploading photos of the eclipse to a special Flickr group.

"We thought this would be fun to do and we can't wait to see how it's going to go," said Jon Nelson, JPL's manager of online publishing, who's heading up the project. "We hope everybody can come out and take a look at the lunar eclipse with JPL and join the conversation."

If all goes well Monday, JPL may also employ social media campaigns for other celestial events, said Nelson.

Gearing up for the eclipse, the JPL Blog features a discussion of future moon explorations by Sami Asmar, a scientist working on a lunar observation project that launches next year, and on Monday will post a information about how lunar volcanoes and dust can affect what colors we see during an eclipse.

During the eclipse, the moon takes on a deep red color because it is visible only by light that is refracting off Earth's atmosphere, said Asmar.

On Monday night, explained Asmar, "The moon will come into the shadow of the Earth, with the sun on one side of Earth and the moon on the other. Normally light from the sun reflects off the moon to the surface of Earth, but in an eclipse the moon is completely in the dark. You would think intuitively that you would not get any light [by which to make the moon visible] … but we see it in a red color. The reason is that the sunlight reaching it travels through the Earth's atmosphere and gets refracted, so you can see it in a red color. That the light actually bends around the atmosphere of Earth and still hits the moon and comes back to us explains what we see during a lunar eclipse."

Asmar is deputy project scientist for JPL's GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory) Lunar Project. In September, NASA will launch two twin GRAIL spacecraft to orbit the moon and use radio signals to accomplish an unprecedented study the moon's gravity field.

Two spacecraft are needed to record the moon's gravity, said Asmar, because its rotation rate is synchronous with the Earth's — meaning only one side is visible from Earth, hence the term "dark side of the moon."

Understanding the moon's gravity will help scientists determine what makes up its interior and give clues to its origins.

"Ultimately this may help solve the puzzle of where the moon came from: Did it split off from Earth a long time ago…or was it a foreign object that was captured by the Earth's gravity?" Asmar explained.

There have been three lunar eclipses visible from North America in the past 10 years, said Asmar, but this is the first in hundreds of years that will coincide with the winter solstice — the day the earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun, marking the start of winter.

The last time the two events coincided, he said, was 1378.

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