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Myths, months, and the moon

(Page 3 of 3)

In 1503, Columbus's ships were run aground on Jamaica's southern coast. They were too rotted from shipworm to safely carry their crews back to Spain. Columbus was stranded with 115 sailors for more than a year, waiting for rescue. At first, natives were willing to provide food, but they tired of this. Columbus needed a way to persuade them to continue.

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He knew from an almanac that a lunar eclipse was due to occur the last night of February in 1504. So he told the natives that his God was angry with them and would show his anger that evening. When the natives saw the moon disappearing they were terrified and promised to take care of the sailors if Columbus would restore the moon. The natives provided food for the crew until they were rescued later that year.

Why lunar eclipses happen

A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the deepest part of the shadow cast by Earth, called the umbra. (The penumbra is the lighter shadow; see diagram.) Unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are perfectly safe to watch.

Looking at the diagram, you might ask: Why don't a solar eclipse (which occurs when the moon passes directly in front of the sun, as seen from Earth) and a lunar eclipse happen once every time the moon orbits Earth? That would be one solar eclipse and one lunar eclipse every 29-1/2 days or so.

The answer: The moon's orbit is tilted about five degrees from the orbit of Earth around the sun. So the moon doesn't line up directly in front of the sun and exactly behind Earth on every orbit. There are only two points (called nodes) where the moon's orbit crosses Earth's orbit. The nodes are the only two places where the moon could possibly block the sun (solar eclipse) or pass directly behind Earth (lunar eclipse). For an eclipse to occur, though, a node must coincide with a new moon (for a solar eclipse) or a full moon (lunar eclipse).

Because of the way the moon orbits, the nodes don't stay put. They travel around Earth in a predictable way. The next total lunar eclipse will be May 16, 2003, visible in most of the Western hemisphere.

For more information

A schedule of lunar and solar eclipses is available at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center website at

Answer quiz questions, complete puzzles, see pictures, and learn more about the moon at

Watch an animation of the moon going through its phases at

Calendar converter websites

These sites will convert dates from one calendar to another

Chinese calendar to Western (Gregorian):

Islamic to Western:

Books for elementary school readers

Where Does the Moon Go?

by Sidney Rosen (Carolrhoda Books, 1992).

Grades 2-3

The Best Book of the Moon

by Ian Graham (Larousse Kingfisher Chambers, 1999).

Grade 4

The Moon and You

by Robin R. Krupp (Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Grades 4-5

The Moon

by Robin Kerrod (Lerner Publications, 2000).

Grade 5