Lunar eclipse, winter solstice overlap for celestial event of the century

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by Catherine Holland

azfamily.com

Posted on December 20, 2010 at 8:35 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 7:53 AM

PHOENIX -- For the first time in 456 years, the total lunar eclipse and the winter solstice are overlapping and you have the chance to see it -- tonight.

The eclipse, which has 12 phases, will start at 11:33 p.m. Arizona time and last for more than three hours.

During a lunar eclipse, the moon, Earth and the sun are aligned so that Earth blocks the sun's rays from the moon.

When it first begins, it will look like a bite has been taken out of the moon.

The start of the total eclipse -- the totality phase -- is expected at about 12:40 a.m. While in Earth's shadow, the moon will take on a vibrant red color until about 1:30 a.m. Astronomers say this is probably the best time to go out and take a look because the colors will be amazing.

Unlike a solar eclipse, it's perfectly safe to watch a lunar eclipse with the naked eye, and it can be seen anywhere on the night side of Earth.

A lunar eclipse always occurs when the moon is full, which is why it doesn't happen every month. It also lasts much longer than a solar eclipse -- hours as opposed to minutes.

While no special equipment is needed to watch a lunar eclipse, you might want to grab some binoculars for a closer look.

You can improve you viewing experience by getting away from light pollution and smog. All you really need, though, is a clear sky. The overnight forecast for the Phoenix metro area calls for partly cloudy skies, so you should still be able to get a good look.

The last lunar eclipse, a partial eclipse, was on June 26.

While a lunar eclipse, even a total lunar eclipse, itself is fairly common, a total lunar eclipse on the winter solstice -- the shortest day of the year when Earth is tilted furthest from the sun  -- is rare. The last time it happened was in the 1600s. According to the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association, it will occur again in 2094, 2363 and 2382.

The lunar eclipse and the winter solstice did coincide in 1991, but that was just a partial eclipse.

The fact that tonight's lunar eclipse is happening during the winter solstice makes the event unique in terms of timing, but it doesn't change what happens or how the eclipse appears.

If you take photos of the total lunar eclipse, be sure to share them with all of Arizona's Family by uploading them to YouNews!

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