Sky Gazers Treated to Lunar Eclipse Overnight

The only lunar eclipse of the year began on Monday night.

December 20, 2010, 10:48 AM

Dec. 21, 2010— -- In the only lunar eclipse of 2010, sky gazers were treated to a rare sight overnight.

Barring cloudy weather, astronomy enthusiasts and sky gazers across North America were dazzled by the first lunar eclipse to fall on the same day as the winter solstice in 372 years.

A lunar eclipse takes place when the sun, Earth and moon are all perfectly aligned with the Earth in the middle. When the moon passes behind the Earth, the sun's rays are blocked from striking the moon. This can only occur when the moon is full.

If the sky was clear, experts said the moon would appear to have a reddish glow.

However, the rainy weather made it difficult for some on the West Coast to view it late Monday night.

As the moon moves deeper into Earth's shadow, indirect sunlight passes through Earth's atmosphere, casting an orange and red hue over the moon.

Unlike a solar eclipse, which can only be seen for a few moments from any specific spot, a lunar eclipse can be viewed for several hours. It is also safe to view a lunar eclipse without special glasses or equipment.

2011 to Have Two Lunar Eclipses

According to NASA, the total phase should last about three and a half hours when it began as a partial eclipse at 1:33 a.m. ET and it will finish at 5:01 a.m. ET. The totality phase -- when the moon is entirely inside Earth's shadow -- will last approximately 72 minutes.

This year's only lunar eclipse actually coincides with the winter solstice, meaning that the moon will appear high in the night sky, aiding visibility for revelers.

There will be two total lunar eclipses in 2011 -- one in June and one in December. North America will miss the June show and witness only a part of next December's eclipse.

Find out more about the Dec. 21 lunar eclipse here at NASA's website.