Jan 21, 2019

LA- based Astrophysicist Dr. Erin Macdonald Weighs in on the Super Blood Wolf Moon

Angelenos were treated to a clear view of the lunar eclipse, aka Super Blood Wolf Moon last night and it did not disappoint. With a name like that, we were curious if this spacial event could meet the hype! We spoke to local LA- based astrophysicist Dr. Erin Macdonald about the rare event.

Dr. Erin, as she’s called by colleagues and friends, is an astrophysicist and aerospace engineer with a Ph.D in Astrophysics from the University of Glasgow (Scotland), having done her Bachelor’s at the University of Boulder (Colorado.) She currently works for SAIC and as a consultant for the US Air Force. Erin’s specialty is general relativity, having previously worked in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration searching for gravitational waves (the group later won a Nobel Prize)…NBD!

In addition, she is a self professed science fiction nerd and works as a consultant to Hollywood writers and producers imparting her knowledge and scientific accuracy for projects including video games, TV, and film and most recently consulted on Orbital Redux. In fact, Erin credits her interest in becoming an astrophysicist to her love of the character Dana Scully from The X-Files, her favorite show growing up!  I know… we were geeking out too. Check out what she had to say about the Super Blood Wolf Moon.

What is a lunar eclipse and why was last night’s event called a Blood Moon?

A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth is directly between the Sun and the Moon. The light from the Sun that would normally cause a full moon gets blocked by the Earth, and what little light does get cast has been refracted through our atmosphere, turning it red. Essentially, it’s like the side of the moon facing us is experiencing one giant sunset, and that red light is being reflected back to us.

So why don’t we see this phenomenon every month?

The orbit of the Moon around the Earth is slightly tilted, so the angles of the orbits have to line up just right to result in an eclipse. In fact, this Lunar Eclipse was the last one visible in the United States until May 2021. I hope you didn’t miss it!

Why is this called a “Super Blood Wolf Moon”? Or is just because it’s so fun!

Just like how the orbits are slightly tilted, the orbit is also not a perfect circle, so sometimes the Moon is closer or further away as it goes around the Earth every month. When the closest point to the Earth also coincides with a full moon, we call it a “Super Moon”. Though the Moon is slightly closer to the Earth, it’s pretty imperceptibly bigger and more just a fun fact than anything we can actually notice.  Because the orbits have aligned just so that we are experiencing the closest point, as well as the Earth’s shadow getting cast on the Moon (a lunar eclipse), we are calling this a “Super Blood Moon”.

Photo Credit: Director/Photographer Mike Makara (IG: @michael_makara)

What’s the difference between a “Blood Moon” and a “Blue Moon”?

A Blood Moon happens during a lunar eclipse, when the shadow of the Earth gets cast on a full moon, and the light from the Sun is refracted through our atmosphere causing effectively a giant sunset on this side of the moon. That red light is bounced off the surface and makes the full moon appear red. A Blue Moon has nothing to do with the geometries of the Earth/Moon/Sun orbits, but rather just the rare times we get two full moons in a single calendar month. Because the Moon orbits the Earth about once every 27 days (close to one month) if a full moon falls early in the calendar month, we may get another one before the next month, which we call a “Blue Moon”… nothing to do with the appearance of the moon.

What do you love most about the face that your job as a scientist has started to intersect with the entertainment world?

I love that my career allows me to work with writers, teach STEM through popular culture (she’s using the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender to teach kids about spacetime), and fulfill my life goal of becoming a warp drive expert!

Where can our fans see you imparting space knowledge next?

I’m speaking at quite a few conferences across the country this year on the science theories behind many science fiction franchises which I think the Press Pass LA audience will love. I’m booked to speak at Future Con’s upcoming Awesome Con, Big Easy Con, and Rose City Comic Con in 2019, and I’m adding more dates daily. You can follow me on Twitter @DrErinMac for updates.