Monday, December 20, 2010

The Winter Solstice Eclipse and Statistics

A lot is being made of tonight's "rare" lunar eclipse that occurs on the Winter Solstice. Most news reports state there hasn't been a lunar eclipse on the solstice since 1638 to make the point that this is a rare event.

Which got me to thinking, how often would a lunar eclipse occur on any given date. Heck, I know one has not occurred on my birthday during my lifetime.

I admittedly don't know all the intricacies of calculating eclipse frequencies, so this is an exercise in estimation. Eclipses can occur any month of the year as seen from this list. Not every eclipse is total however, so let's restrict ourselves to total lunar eclipses since that is what everyone is making such a big deal about. They occur about every 18 months on average. Every 100 years there are about 67 total lunar eclipses. Let's assume for a moment (I know this is a bad assumption) that they all occur on different calendar date. It would take about 550 years (well 544, but this is an estimate so close enough) for every day of the year to have on eclipse occur on that date. In reality it will take a lot longer since many dates will have two eclipses occur on them long before the 550 years is up. So to me, the fact that this hasn't happened in 372 years just doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me (although the solstice can vary couple of days adding another layer to the mix, it still seems well within statistical norms).

Now I have made some assumptions here...the most questionable of which is that eclipses are equally likely on any given day. If this assumption is bad, it could make the winter solstice eclipse a more or less rare event...would take some number crunching to find out. I found a cool catalog of 5000 years of eclipses from NASA but it's not in nice form to easily analyze the dates. However, during 5000 years, there were an average of 69.5 total solar eclipses per century, so my guess was pretty close!

So before you think this is a big deal, take ANY random date of the year and try and find when the last time an eclipse occurred on that date. I bet it won't be hard to find a date that has an interval greater than 372 years! So enjoy it, but remember, statistically speaking, it sure looks like nothing out of the ordinary.

Reprinted with permission from the Half-Astrophysicist Blog.


OrbsCorbs said...

The media hype everything. They have gobs of air time to fill. I liked the film and images they showed on the news about the eclipse.

I wonder if an eclipse takes on more meaning if it occurs on a solstice in pagan or Wiccan belief systems?

Our snowstorm is late in arriving and now more likely to blot out the eclipse.

MinnesotaChick said...

Too cloudy here. :(

OKIE said...

I woke up about 1:30 and decided to go see what was happening. It was pretty neat even with high clouds. Got my husband up as he is a space nut and we just stared at it for a while. Wasn't as orange but again, we did have high clouds. Glad we got to see it.

kkdither said...

Saw pictures online of it this morning. Looked very cool. We had clouds with snow, I think.. I was sleeping, early morning alarm set. grrr. Last day of work is today; now I can sleep in for awhile! :)

hale-bopp said...

Pics from me coming soon...