On the evening of Saturday, March 5, the New Haven Astronomical Society gathered on a pathway behind the science center of Southern Connecticut State University. Armed with a battery of high-powered telescopes, binoculars and digital cameras, the band of stargazers aligned their equipment along the walkway like cannon facing an impending siege. Their mission? To observe the first total lunar eclipse in two and a half years.
The group focused its lenses upon a monument on the darkening horizon. This, said Jim Fulmer, professor of earth science at SCSU and resident celestial Svengali, was where the moon was going to rise. But as night fell, there emerged a significant problem: the moon was nowhere to be seen.
The observers stared into the opaque haze with religious tenacity, convinced of the orb’s position despite its invisibility. While the astronomers’ faith remained strong, the young and unconverted seemed less willing to suspend belief. “Where is it?” a little boy asked anxiety trembling in his voice. “It should be right over those traffic lights,” replied Jim, pointing to a spot directly above a congested intersection.
Despite this show of confidence, Jim knew that the worsening weather had locked the team into a selenological race against time. Totality, when the moon lies fully in the shadow of the earth, would be over by 6:48 p.m. It was now ten past. The Society needed a miracle to clear the heavens.
The children grew restless while the adults looked to the stars and planets now appearing overhead for inspiration. “Look at Venus!” one man said, aiming his eyepiece toward a globule of light above the science center. The kids formed a queue to the telescope, peering into the tube for several seconds before circling back to the end of the line. Jim began a mini-lecture on the eclipses, describing the blues, reds and oranges that tint the moon as it passes through the earth’s shadow; the colors, he said, are from the earth’s atmosphere. “Let’s not miss what we came for,” cautions a heavily bearded, big-gutted man with a grin.
His concern proves unfounded. “I see it!” shouted a boy, finger raised to a rust-colored disk, pushing ghostlike out of the dissipating cloud. The Society turns and lifts its fists to eye-level, measuring the moon’s distance above the horizon in a collective salute to the otherworldly vision. It is 6:23 p.m.
“Someone call Channel 8 and tell them about the story they just missed,” suggests Jim. “They must listen to their own weather forecasts.”