The moon shows a dark side

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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.

Starting at 11.20pm, the full moon was for four hours in eclipse, caused by the moon moving into the shadow cast in space by the Earth.

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 - last night it was a reddish brown. The colouring effect is caused by the sun's rays being bent by the Earth's atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the comet Hyakutake - another harbinger of misfortune for some - was visible in the north-west 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 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 howl like dogs to ward off its evil effects.

As recently as 1974, 16 people were killed in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, when soldiers fired guns to frighten what they thought was a monkey eating the moon. Some experts believe Stonehenge was built as an observatory to predict eclipses of both the sun and moon. Lunar eclipses first helped astronomers to work out that the Moon and Earth moved in elliptical, rather than circular, orbits. Nowadays, minuscule changes in their timing, compared to predictions, help to demonstrate that the Moon is very gradually moving away from the position of the Earth.