Bad weather spoils viewing of lunar eclipse

Star gazing on the beach.

MOONGAZERS in Miri made a beeline to Canada Hill to view a rare lunar eclipse but their once-in-a-blue-moon chance to catch the celestial phenomenon was spoilt by bad weather.

The total Super Blue Moon eclipse, which occurred over Sarawak skies on the last day of January 2018, sent many an excited astronomy enthusiast in the resort city outdoors but the weather proved to be a spoilsport and Mirians now have to wait another decade to witness the next one (weather-permitting, of course) which will occur on Dec 31, 2028, though the moon will not be quite as large since it will not be a lunar perigee.

The phenomenon is sometimes called a Blood Moon as the moon turns red. This is caused by the moon sliding behind Earth’s shadow (umbra) during a lunar eclipse, lasting about five hours and 17 minutes, according to Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Miri chairman Musa Musbah.

It is also called a Blue Moon, being the second full moon to occur in a month (in this instance, January 2018) as well as a Super Moon since it was closer to the Earth than usual and was 14 per cent larger and 30 per cent brighter.

Besides Sarawak, the eclipse was seen over Eastern Europe, East Africa, Asia, Australia and North America.

‘Moongazing’ with MNS 

At six o’clock on the final evening of January, I drove to Canada Hill to meet up with MNS Miri members who had gathered at a lookout point there.

Musa and his friends had set their five telescopes at an angle of 73 degrees. Together with them to watch the moon rising from the east were over 30 MNS members.

Although the weather was not all that promising, Musa did not want to disappoint anyone. He adjusted the telescopes carefully and spoke to those who turned up.

Dark clouds soon gathered in the eastern skies as the sun set in the west beyond the Resort City, but Musa was on hand to field questions at the small open space along the narrow road, leading to the Grand Old Lady, the birthplace of the petroleum industry in the state and an iconic spot in Miri on top of Canada Hill.

Not too far from there, the land had slipped and a sign was put up to warn road users. This could be a reason why not many people came.

Musa told thesundaypost, “When I joined MNS Miri branch seven years ago, one of the activities was astronomy. I was always interested to know about the stars and the moon. I brought a few telescopes to scan the sky during my free time.

“For our first celestial event, we brought along a well-known astronomer, Lim Choon Kiat, from Penang who runs a telescope home page, selling astronomy-related items. In fact, I had just ordered two new telescopes from him.

“At one time, Lim came to give a talk on astronomy and demonstrate how ‘to make a rocket from an aerated water bottle’. The children were always happy to participate in this kind of MNS event.”

He added that well-known local amateur astronomers, John Sam Ting and Kong Li San, also supported MNS activities and shared a lot of knowledge on astronomy with the members.

“We were lucky as well to have Nazeri Ab Ghani as chairman before. I personally learned a lot from him about astronomy, birding, crocodiles and fireflies. We carried out a few astronomy projects with a group of students at Tusan Cliff, Suai Beach, Kuala Baram Bawai Island and Pustaka Miri.

“We usually went to light-pollution-free places where the stars looked very bright in the sky. We also did long exposure photography on our galaxy – The Milky Way.”

Musa said participants of his astronomy expeditions must be prepared to go to pitch dark places … often with many mosquitoes. For serious astronomy, he has to take people to places where the light is unpolluted such as Suai and other secluded areas like Ba Kelalan, Bario and Long Seridan.

“We have to be very patient and parents must be supportive too. Sometimes, we have to be flexible. If there are too many do’s and don’ts, it will be hard to run astronomy programmes. For example, in some schools, the students may be keen but there too many rules,” he added.

Musa also said he and his friends have always made moon-crescent sightings to determine the start of Ramadan and the first day of Syawal.

Cloudy skies conceal the rising moon as seen from Canada Hill.

Good eyes

Canadian-educated Mirian Ting is very supportive of MNS’ astronomy activities. He agrees with Musa that equipment is not really important as a pair of good eyes will be enough.

“Equipment can come later when we want to look at the moon’s surface and the planets,” he noted.

He said in some countries, children are very well exposed to astronomy, adding that events like meteor showers, solar and lunar eclipses, planet conjunctions, Super Moon, Blue Moon and watching the Milky Way are all good phenomena to watch and study.

The group, waiting to see the Super Moon on Jan 11, said the spot where they mounted their telescopes was too near the roadside on Canada Hill. Also, rain-laden clouds were forming with lightning flashing in the distance. The children who accompanied their parents and Musa’s own grandchildren were asked to stay in the car.

A retiree, known as Teo, said the Canada Hill area needed to be improved and a special lookout point for amateur astronomers would be a welcome addition.

In ancient times, Galileo Galilei turned a telescope to the heavens and recorded what he saw. Since then, observational astronomy has made steady advances with each improvement in telescope technology.

An observatory

“We are now in the 21st century with so much equipment available. We don’t see why we cannot build an observatory in Miri,” she said.

Teo said she read that the Singapore Science Centre was organising a viewing session of the Super Moon and more than 700 people had indicated they would be attending.

It was also in the news that the Malaysia Langkawi National Observatory was making arrangements for the public to view the phenomenon. According to the Observatory, the last Super Blue Blood Moon eclipse occurred in 1866 – 152 years ago.

An astronomy session conducted by the Malaysian Nature Society at Pustaka Miri. — Photos by Chang Yi and Musa Musbah

Astronomy for children

Another Mirian identified only as Leong said she used to teach maths in a Miri primary school and being a course coordinator, she was keen for children to learn astronomy.

“Maybe they cannot be a Galileo but they can be curious about the sky and try to find out more about the history of the stars and calculate their bearings. They may not all become astronauts but they can explore the wonders of the universe with knowledge of astronomy.

“I remember the scouts in school using the positions of stars to find their way when they got lost in the jungle. That’s a great body of knowledge for anyone to have. We didn’t even have to spend a single sen on a telescope.”

Photos of eclipse

By 9pm (Malaysian time), many on Canada Hill had received photos via WhatsApp of the eclipse from other parts of the world, including Australia and the US. The daughter of a friend in Melbourne sent over a beautiful snapshot of the phenomenon but no such luck on Canada Hill. There was no moon over Miri that night with dark clouds shrouding the orb of the night, depriving moongazers of the chance to witness a cosmic spectacle.

After the next total Blue Moon eclipse on Dec 31, 2028, another one will take place on Jan 31, 2037. Hopefully though, it will not take a 300-year wait for an observatory to be built in Miri.

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