Clear skies will make for spectacular lunar eclipse

Crystal clear skies over most of the UK hold out the promise of a spectacular lunar eclipse tonight.

Although there may be some patchy cloud in a few areas, conditions will generally be ideal for the 21st century's first total eclipse of the moon.

Astronomers predict that it could be one of the most dramatic lunar eclipses in recent years.

People across Britain and western Europe will have a ringside seat for the event, which will also be visible in Africa and parts of Asia.

The eclipse will begin at 6.42pm today, when the moon starts to enter the Earth's shadow.

As the Earth gets between the sun and the moon, a "bite" will appear to be taken from one side of the lunar disc.

Gradually the "bite" - the curved edge of the Earth's shadow - will creep across the moon's face until at 7.50pm the whole lunar surface will be covered.

The moon will darken and, if the conditions are right, change colour from silver to orange or red.

Once the sight of the moon "turned to blood", it was widely viewed as a portent of disaster or a sign that the gods were angry. In some parts of the world it still fills people with fear and dread.

Today we know that during a lunar eclipse sunlight filtered and bent by the Earth's atmosphere can cause the moon to turn an orange or reddish colour. Experts believe the eclipse could be one of the most dramatic and colourful for years.

This is because it has been nearly a decade since a really big volcanic eruption threw dust into the upper atmosphere. As a result the air at high altitudes is especially transparent at the present time.

Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, said: "The moon will darken and may turn a reddish or yellow colour, depending on how much cloud there is around. It's going to be a nice one - assuming that the weather is clear, of course."

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