There was no solar eclipse today, even though people were searching for it online. Instead, the great lunar eclipse of 2011 -- a majestic phenomenon that occurs when the moon, passing through Earth's shadow, turns an eerie, rusty red because of sunlight bent by Earth's distorting atmosphere -- was seen by hundreds of millions of people.
The downside for Americans is that today's eclipse was not visible from North America. But the Google home page used it as its Google Doodle, showing the eclipse almost in real time, from cameras in South Africa, Dubai and the Canary Islands.
"It just sort of happened very naturally," said Anne Espiritu of Google, who described how engineers decided to turn the by-now-famous Google Doodle into a view of the eclipse. "For us, it sort of ties in with our love of geekiness and our fascination with the universe."
The picture, says Google, updated every two minutes. Google suggested trying the slider at the bottom of the doodle. You'll find you can play the images back and forth as a time-lapse movie, watching Earth's shadow move across the moon's face. If you don't see the doodle before Google returns to its regular logo, past ones are archived here.
The images were provided by Slooh, an astronomy website that did the sky images for a layer of Google Earth. Video is also being streamed on YouTube, which Google owns, and can be seen on Android smartphones if you download an app from -- who else? -- Google.
The images were posted on Google's sites globally (an example is here), so that even if you were in the right parts of the world but the weather was lousy, you would have the consolation of your computer screen. (If you live in India or Singapore and found our story, please let us know.)
There were non-Google places to watch the eclipse too. Try the Sky Watchers Association of North Bengal in India -- SWAN for short. They had a crisp picture ... until clouds set in.
Here's some eclipse information, if that's what you came looking for:
You'll recall that the moon, as it circles Earth every 28 days, is almost in the same plane as Earth's orbit around the sun -- almost but not exactly. Most months, the moon passes just north or south of Earth's shadow, and we see a full moon -- the complete disc, highest in the sky at midnight.
Today's eclipse, according to Fred Espenak of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, was a particularly good one -- in the right places. The moon passed very close to the middle of Earth's shadow, so the moon was at least partly covered for more than 5½ hours.
A solar eclipse is the opposite: The new moon happens to pass right between the sun and Earth, and the moon's shadow, much shorter than ours, grazes a narrow strip of Earth's surface. People who flock to that strip may see the sun blocked entirely for two or three spectacular minutes. The movements of the spheres are complex but highly predictable. There have to be at least two lunar or solar eclipses each year, but there cannot be more than seven.
Google Logo Shows Moon Eclipse 2011; Moon Phase Full
Google has periodically been turning its logo into different doodles since 1998 to mark holidays or special occasions. The first, when Google was still a tiny business, was only to signal that the staff would be away for the weekend. Over time, the doodles have become more ambitious. Last week, Google marked guitarist Les Paul's birthday with a playable guitar. In May, people woke up one morning to find a working version of the 1980s video game Pac-Man, invented 30 years before.
Personnel managers doubtless groan when such things happen. The Internet lights up with people searching for more on whatever Google is celebrating, and countless hours are lost as people play with the doodles.
It's not that big a deal for Google, which, Espiritu said, has only a handful of people working on its doodles. The payoff for the company is in good feelings -- and clicks as well, as people search for information on the eclipse.
"It's really a way for us to put a face behind the home page," she said. "There are people who work here. We're not just a machine."