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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Moon dives behind Earth
Moonwatchers across the globe were treated to a lunar eclipse late on Thursday and early on Friday.

See images of the total lunar eclipse in May 2003

It was visible from much of Europe, Africa and the Americas - where cloud did not obscure the show.

The event began at 0105 GMT (0205 BST), with the moment of greatest eclipse at 0340 GMT (0440 BST).

The slow and subdued nature of lunar eclipses makes them less dramatic than solar eclipses and scientifically they are also less important - but they can still make a spectacle.

Their nature means the Moon can often turn a deep red or copper colour.

Some consolation

There were reports of very good viewing conditions in many parts of the world. In Athens, Greece, photographers were able to take some fine images. Excellent viewing was also reported from countries as far apart as Germany, the US, and Paraguay.

In the UK, conditions were less favourable. Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, was disappointed that rain and thick cloud meant he was unable to see anything from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.

"It's been completely wiped out I'm afraid. You can't see anything at all.

"If it had taken place in the dead of night then you might have been able to actually see something taking place despite the clouds, but because it's fairly early in the morning it was starting to get light anyway and then the moon was fairly low in the sky."

British skywatchers can console themselves with the knowledge that they might get a decent view of an annular solar eclipse on 31 May - Scotland is the place to be.

There is also another total lunar eclipse on 9 November. This event should be brighter than the one just past.

'Imperturbable serenity'

A total lunar eclipse occurs when the full Moon passes into the Earth's shadow and is blocked from the Sun's rays that normally illuminate it.

Graphic, BBC
South America and eastern North America got best view
Dust and cloud in Earth's atmosphere affected Moon's colour
At the height of the eclipse, the Sun, Earth and Moon are aligned in space.

Unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are safe to view with the naked eye. A pair of modest binoculars is all that is needed to enhance the spectacle.

During a total lunar eclipse, the only light that can reach the Moon's surface has been refracted through our planet's atmosphere.

The refracted light can be red, brown or a deep copper colour. The actual hue depends on how much dust and cloud is in the Earth's atmosphere as the sunlight is bent through it.

Although not as spectacular as when the Moon crosses the face of the Sun, lunar eclipses have a beauty and grandeur of their own.

Graphic, BBC
Occurs when Moon passes into Earth's shadow
Penumbra: Region where Earth blocks some (but not all) Sun rays
Umbra: Zone where Earth blocks all direct sunlight - total eclipse
Thomas Hardy said the movement of the Earth's shadow over the Moon had an "imperturbable serenity".

The colour effect is the stuff of myth and legend. An account in 331 BC said: "...all her light was sullied and suffused with the hue of blood."

Some ancients called it "the time of the blood of the Great Mother's wisdom", linking the Moon's colour with menstruation. This was a natural thing to do given the link between the length of the month and human fertility.

In 1503, Christopher Columbus, stranded in the Caribbean, used a lunar eclipse he knew would take place to impress the natives and secure respect and fear, as well as a regular supply of food.

Dr Robin Catchpole, Greenwich Royal Observatory
"Eclipses of the Moon occur about twice a year"

Skywatchers await lunar eclipse
15 May 03  |  Science/Nature
Astronauts' view of eclipse
09 Dec 02  |  Science/Nature
Moon glows red
21 Jan 00  |  Science/Nature


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