Lunar Eclipse Wows World Wednesday Night

The last total lunar eclipse until 2010 occurred Wednesday night, with cameo appearances by Saturn and the bright star Regulus on either side of the veiled full moon.

Skywatchers viewing through a telescope had the added treat of seeing Saturn's handsome rings.

The total eclipse was seen from North and South America. People in Europe and Africa were also able to see it high in the sky before dawn on Thursday.

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As the moonlight dimmed — it won't go totally dark — Saturn and Regulus popped out and sandwiched the moon. Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

Jack Horkheimer, host of the PBS show "Star Gazer," called the event "the moon, the lord of the rings and heart of the lion eclipse."

Wednesday's event was the last total lunar eclipse until Dec. 20, 2010. Last year there were two.

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

During an eclipse, the sun, Earth and moon line up, leaving a darkened moon visible to observers on the night side of the planet.

The moon doesn't go black because indirect sunlight still reaches it after passing through the Earth's atmosphere.

Since the atmosphere filters out blue light, the indirect light that reaches the moon transforms it into a reddish or orange tinge, depending on how much dust and cloud cover are in the atmosphere at the time.

Wednesday's total eclipse phase lasted nearly an hour. Earth's shadow blotted out the moon beginning around 7 p.m. on the West Coast and 10 p.m. on the East Coast.

West Coast skygazers missed the start of the eclipse because it occurred before the moon rises.

Unlike solar eclipses which require protective eyewear, lunar eclipses are safe to view with the naked eye.

Later this year, in August, there will be a total solar eclipse and a partial lunar eclipse.