What’s a penumbral eclipse of the moon?
An eclipse of the moon can only happen at full moon, when the sun, Earth and moon line up in space, with Earth in the middle. At such times, Earth’s shadow falls on the moon, creating a lunar eclipse. Lunar eclipses happen a minimum of two times to a maximum of five times a year. There are three kinds of lunar eclipses: total, partial and penumbral.
In a total eclipse of the moon, the inner part of Earth’s shadow, called the umbra, falls on the moon’s face. At mid-eclipse, the entire moon is in shadow, which may appear blood red.
In a partial lunar eclipse, the umbra takes a bite out of only a fraction of the moon. The dark bite grows larger, and then recedes, never reaching the total phase.
In a penumbral lunar eclipse, only the more diffuse outer shadow of Earth – the penumbra – falls on the moon’s face. This third kind of lunar eclipse is much more subtle, and much more difficult to observe, than either a total or partial eclipse of the moon. There is never a dark bite taken out of the moon, as in a partial eclipse. The eclipse never progresses to reach the dramatic minutes of totality. At best, at mid-eclipse, very observant people will notice a dark shading on the moon’s face. Others will look and notice nothing at all.
According to eclipse expert Fred Espenak, about 35% of all eclipses are penumbral. Another 30% are partial eclipses, where it appears as if a dark bite has been taken out of the moon. And the final 35% go all the way to becoming total eclipses of the moon, a beautiful natural event.
Bottom line: There are three kinds of lunar eclipses: total, partial and penumbral. A penumbral eclipse is very subtle. At no time does a dark bite appear to be taken out of the moon. Instead, at mid-eclipse, observant people will notice a shading on the moon’s face.