Answer Man

Lunar eclipse likely won’t be the end of the world

Q: Recently, I heard someone on radio talking about a coming eclipse of the moon as the end of a tettad or tetrad or something like that. There was even a mention that it could signal the end of the world. Could you please explain what this is all about?

Dwight Duncan, of Shiloh

A: If you think the pope’s visit to the United States this week was something to get excited about, just wait until you hear the prediction Mark Biltz once made for this Sunday night.

Back in 2008, the founder of El Shaddai Ministries in Washington State said he had discovered an astronomical pattern that heralded the beginning of the seven-year great tribulation. Moreover, these end times likely would culminate with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ sometime between 7:11 p.m. Sunday and 12:22 a.m. Monday St. Louis time.

Why those times precisely? They mark the beginning and end of a total lunar eclipse, during which time the moon may appear blood red, a dire omen in several biblical passages.

But this isn’t going to be just any ol’ total lunar eclipse. This one will mark the end of a sometimes rare astronomical phenomenon during which skywatchers are treated to four consecutive eclipses of the moon that are “total” in nature.

It’s called a “tetrad” and Sunday night’s eclipse will be the last of another such quartet that began April 15, 2014. If its start on income tax day wasn’t scary enough, Biltz six years before had prophesied that this surely would mark the start of the final months of Earth as we know it.

Scientists, of course, have seen such warnings of doom go unfulfilled for centuries, and they expect millions of sleepy-eyed Americans will be gulping down their coffee and driving off to work Monday morning as usual. However, it does give those scientists (and me) a chance to discuss another natural wonder of the universe.

An eclipse of the moon occurs when the Earth comes between the moon and sun and casts its huge shadow on that much smaller, desolate world about 240,000 miles away. But not all eclipses are created equal. Because the moon’s orbit is slightly tilted relative to the sun’s path across the sky, the moon usually passes above or below the Earth’s shadow, which means there’s no eclipse at all.

Yet even if the moon does slip into our shadow, eclipses still will vary because our planet’s shadow consists of two parts: a dark inner core called the “umbra” and a lighter outer area called the “penumbra.” As a result, eclipses come in three flavors:

The least dramatic is the penumbral eclipse, during which the moon passes through that lighter area of shadow. Usually, you won’t even realize an eclipse is occurring.

Next is the partial eclipse. Here, the moon dips into that umbral core, but not all the way so only a part of its surface is darkened.

Finally, there’s the total eclipse, during which the umbral core covers the entire face of the moon. These are the eclipses that sometimes frightened our ancestors because a small amount of light passing through our atmosphere can color the usually white or silvery moon strangely. Depending on our atmospheric conditions, the moon may sport a color from light, coppery red to blood red to brownish to almost totally black. Some refer to it as the “blood moon.”

Adding to the fun and mystery is that, while eclipses now can be predicted decades in advance, there’s no regular pattern to the various types. A total eclipse may follow a penumbral eclipse after a partial eclipse. But every once in a while, as we have the last couple of years, we earthlings will witness a tetrad — four total eclipses in a row. These, too, are irregular in occurrence. This particular century will see eight tetrads, including six more after Sunday. The next will occur in 2032-2033. But sometimes two and three centuries can pass without a single tetrad.

As a result, total eclipses with their eerie colors and tetrads were seen by many as omens that God was about to shake things up again here on Earth. In Joel 2:31, we find, "The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." In the New Testament, this vision was repeated in Acts 2:20 and again in Revelations 6:11-13.

Ever since, religious leaders have worked to tie tumultuous events on Earth to tetrads. They say the tetrad of 1949-1950 marked the rebirth of Israel. The tetrad of 1967-1968 was around the time of the Arab war. Some even contend that Columbus was Jewish so the tetrad of 1493-1494 celebrated the discovery of the New World.

And, even though tetrads have been occurring for millennia without major consequences, it doesn’t stop modern preachers from jumping on the bandwagon. In addition to Biltz, well-known televangelist John Hagee, founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, and an international TV empire, wrote “Four Blood Moons” in 2013 in which he claimed that every tetrad in the last 500 years produced tragic events in Jewish history, followed by triumph. By mid-April 2014, the book was No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list in the advice category.

This current tetrad is particularly ominous, these preachers warn, because the April 2014 and 2015 eclipses occurred near the Jewish Passover while the October 2014 and Sunday’s eclipses happen during Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles.

Like Bugs Bunny, scientists, of course, respond by advising people to unlax. Writing in “Earth & Sky” magazine, Bruce McClure and Deborah Byrd note that because the Jewish calendar is lunar, one sixth of all eclipses will occur during Passover or Sukkot. Moreover, eight of the 62 tetrads since Christ’s birth have coincided with these holy days and we’re still here. Casting even more shadow on the premonitions, three of the four eclipses in the current tetrad weren’t even visible in Israel.

So they and other astronomers suggest you simply sit back and enjoy the celestial show Sunday night. But you might want to keep the coffee handy for Monday.

Today’s trivia

In an astronaut’s helmet, you’ll likely find a small piece of white polyurethane known as a Valsalva. What is its purpose?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Here’s an odd historical coincidence: Of the first six presidents of the United States, four were 57 years old when they took office: George Washington (57 years, 67 days), Thomas Jefferson (57-325), James Madison (57-353) and John Quincy Adams (57-236). Since then, presidents have ranged in age from 43 (John Kennedy) to 69 (Ronald Reagan) when they were inaugurated – but, so far, never again 57.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer