WASHINGTON — This is definitely a case of the facts getting in the way of a viral headline.
It popped up Wednesday morning in social media feeds: “Tonight will be the darkest night in 500 years.”
That’s exciting — except for the part where none of it is true.
The internet claims it’ll be the darkest night in centuries because it’s the winter solstice, which is the start of winter and the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
And because there’s going to be a lunar eclipse that will shut off the moon’s light. So solstice plus eclipse equals longest, darkest night.
But the biggest flaw is there isn’t a lunar eclipse on Wednesday night. This year’s two lunar eclipses have already occurred.
“There is no eclipse tonight,” said Noah Petro, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “These things don’t just pop up; we know when these things will happen. The moon will be out tonight. So it will not be completely dark. (It will rise at 1:05 a.m. Thursday in Denver.) And it will be a crescent moon. It will not be a ‘dark moon.’ The darkest night we have is when we have a new moon.”
In a new moon, there is no moon to light the night sky.
Not so dark
And even if there was a lunar eclipse, it would still be far from the darkest night. Petro said during a lunar eclipse, the moon still reflects some of the sunlight.
This light that is being reflected is light traveling through the Earth’s atmosphere, and that is why the moon appears red. It’s like watching the sunset and sunrise reflected on the moon.
And there’s one more reason why it can only get so dark at night — modern technology.
“You do not have dark skies anymore because of light pollution,” Petro said. “Five-hundred years ago you would have had darker skies everywhere and every night because you wouldn’t have as much light pollution. If you want to see a dark sky, go to Barrow, Alaska. The sun won’t even rise there (Wednesday) because it is above the Arctic Circle.”
The source for all of the confusion seems to be an article published in December 2010 on the website io9. It hyped up the winter solstice-lunar eclipse combo that occurred on Dec. 21, 2010 (the last time it’s ever happened).
People recently began passing it around online without checking the date, a few media outlets picked it up and, bam, a celestial bit of fakery was born.
But it’s understandable why people fell for it — because it is kind of cool.
“A lunar eclipse on the December solstice is a rare thing,” said C. Alex Young, an associate director for science at NASA. “The first time it happened before Dec. 21, 2010, was on Dec. 21, 1638. And the next time it will happen will be in 2094.”
So that gives the internet, oh, 78 years to get it right next time.