A full moon winks at Washington, D.C. during last night's total lunar eclipse. Pictured alongside the business end of the Washington Monument, the moon is shown just shy of totality, when the entire orb is engulfed by Earth's shadow and takes on a rusty glow.
Coinciding with the winter solstice for the first time since 1638, the December 21, 2010, lunar eclipse was anything but ordinary.
Around 1 a.m. ET, the moon began going slightly shady, marking the arrival of Earth's faint outer shadow, or penumbra. Shortly after 1:30 a.m. ET, the first signs of a dim "bite"—Earth's dark umbra—began advancing across the moon from the left.
Totality began at about 2:40 a.m. ET, turned the moon a photo-friendly red, and lasted a little over 70 minutes. The full show—the moon's passage through penumbra, umbra, and penumbra again—lasted about three and a half hours.
Photograph courtesy Bill Ingalls, NASA
Rust Never Sleeps
Near the peak of the December 21, 2010, lunar eclipse, the full moon blushed in several shades of reddish orange, as pictured above Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. These rusty hues are due to dust in Earth's atmosphere.
As the sun's rays pass through the atmosphere at an angle, blueish light is filtered out—the same reason the sun looks reddish during sunrises and sunsets. (See "Lunar Eclipse Saturday to Appear Red?")
If you were on the moon during totality, when the entire moon is in shadow, "you would look back at the Earth and see a ring of red light around the perimeter—the red light of all the sunsets and sunrises going on at Earth at that moment," astronomer Benjamin Burress said.
The reason Earth's shadow doesn't make the moon completely dark, even during totality, is that "Earth's atmosphere bends and filters the sunlight to shine a red light on the moon," said Burress, of Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, California.
Photograph by Doug Murray, Reuters
Shuttle Snafu Eclipsed by Sky Show
The full moon—or at least a slice of it—shines on the space shuttle Discovery, headed for a fuel tank inspection, in the first hours of December 21, 2010.
Pictured at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the NASA craft was stalled during journey from launchpad to Vehicle Assembly Building, but the winter solstice lunar eclipse had nothing to do with it. En route to the hangar, the shuttle's crawler-transporter had suffered a malfunction.
Photograph by Kim Shiflett, NASA
Full Moon, Shrouded and Clouded
As if emerging from a mist-blanketed lake, the full moon escapes Earth's shadow in the predawn of December 21, 2010, as pictured over New York City.
Unlike any other total lunar eclipse in 372 years, last night's lunar eclipse coincided with the winter solstice, which occurs at 6:38 p.m. ET Tuesday.
The 2010 winter solstice marks the official beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The shortest day of the year, the December solstice also boasts the year's longest shadows and fewest daylight hours.
It's all due to Earth's Northern Hemisphere being tilted farther from the sun than at any other point during the year. As a result, the sun follows its lowest arc of the year across the sky.
(Related: "Solstice a Cause for Celebration Since Ancient Times.")
Photograph by Lucas Jackson, Reuters
A statue atop St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City last night appears poised to catch the totally eclipsed moon, in all its crimson splendor.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon, Earth, and the sun all line up, with Earth in the middle. During the eclipse, Earth's shadow is cast onto the full moon, dimming—but not completely obscuring—its surface. Unlike solar eclipses, the lunar varieties are safe to view without any special eyewear.
In the full flush of totality, the December 21, 2010, lunar eclipse hangs over Montevideo, Chile.
Lunar eclipses have long been seen as bad omens. Ancient documents from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are full of references connecting eclipses with subsequent dark events, such as a famine or the death of a monarch.
In many traditional cultures, a total lunar eclipse—such as the December 21, 2010, eclipse, pictured over Great Falls, Virginia—occurs not when the moon enters Earth's shadow but when a mythological creature swallows the satellite, according to ancient-astronomy scholar Ed Krupp.
"For the Chinese, it was the heavenly dog, and across central Asia and Europe, it was a dragon," said Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. "The Maya sometimes depicted the eclipse creature as a serpent, while in the Andes, it was often a puma."
In Iraq lunar eclipses are associated with a popular children's story of a moon that is eaten by a whale.
"For most people, most of the time, most eclipses were trouble," Krupp added. "They were regarded as disruptions of the world order, and that made them dangerous."