Dec. 10, 2011— -- Those in the right place at the right time this morning enjoyed a special viewing -- the last lunar eclipse of 2011.
For 51 minutes, starting around 6 a.m. Pacific time, the moon was completely consumed by the earth's shadow.
Michael Eckert, a senior branch forecaster with the National Weather Service said states in the western and northcentral United States had the best view of the moon as it turns a dark, rusty red.
"Those areas have a lot of clear skies and the viewing will be just perfect," Eckert said before the eclipse.
During the eclipse, the disk of the full moon almost disappeared, turning a dark, rusty red.
Totality -- when the moon is completely consumed by Earth's shadow -- began at 6:06 a.m. Pacific time Saturday, and ended at 6:57 a.m. Even on the Pacific coast, dawn started to brighten the sky before the eclipse was over.
Eager sky gazers gathered at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles waiting to catch a glimpse of the lunar eclipse.
Observatory curator Laura Danly said it was certainly worth waking up early for.
"It is just a beautiful sight and a rare one so if you have the opportunity to see one of natures more beautiful, rare occurrences, well, why sleep?" said Danly.
A lunar eclipse can be a quiet, refreshing experience. Depending on the atmospheric conditions where you are, the moon may turn a rich orange, or it may become hard to pick out in the sky. The reddish hue comes from sunlight that is bent by Earth's atmosphere. As happens during a vivid sunrise or sunset, most colors other than red are absorbed by the air.
From the Rocky Mountain states or the West Coast, the moon may have seemed larger than usual. It loomed close to the western horizon, creating a common optical illusion, since people had trees or buildings to which they could compare it.
Clearer views were had from places like Hawaii, Alaska and Guam, where it was the middle of the night, and from eastern Asia and Australia, where (remember, they're on the other side of the International Date Line) it was Saturday evening.
A lunar eclipse takes place when the moon, following its orbit around us, passes directly behind Earth as seen from the sun.
It is the opposite of a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the sun and Earth. Since the moon's orbit is slightly tilted, the bodies do not align perfectly during most months -- but the rules of orbital mechanics are such that in any given year, there will be at least two and no more than seven solar or lunar eclipses.
If you missed Saturday's eclipse, there will be a partial one next June 4. There will not be a total lunar eclipse again until April 15, 2014.
You do not need to be in a special place, or need special equipment, to view a lunar eclipse. All you need is a clear view of the full moon at the right time.
NASA has posted more details on the website of its Goddard Space Flight Center.