Eyes on the sky for lunar eclipse

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Science Correspondent

It has been seen as a portent of doom for thousands of years. But last night the lunar eclipse, far from being a moment of dread, was the occasion for thousands of amateur astronomers to turn their eyes and binoculars to the skies.

The full moon was due to be eclipsed for four hours, starting at 10.20pm. caused by the moon moving into the shadow cast in space by the Earth. For those who missed it, our graphic explains what happened.

A lunar eclipse, which can only occur during a full moon, usually takes place about three times a year but last night's was particularly visible.

During such an eclipse, the moon may appear to turn copper or orange, or to black out altogether. The colouring effect is caused by the sun's rays being bent by the Earth's atmosphere. The effect can be seen with the naked eye, though binoculars or a small tripod-mounted telescope enhance the sight.

Meanwhile, the comet Hyakutake - another harbinger of misfortune, according to some - was visible in the northwest sky. Although the comet was fading and was lower in the sky than it has been, the eclipse would have made it easier to see.

The sight of the moon "turning to blood" instilled fear and dread into ancient peoples, and even in more recent times.

In biblical days, a lunar eclipse was believed to have heralded the death of King Herod, while in ancient Japan men would lie on the ground and howl like dogs to ward off its evil effects.

Lunar eclipses first helped astronomers to work out that the Moon and Earth moved in elliptical, rather than circular, orbits. Nowadays, miniscule changes in their timing, compared to predictions, help to demonstrate that the Moon is very gradually moving away from the position of the Earth.