Moonwatchers Treated to Total Lunar Eclipse

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Star gazers who roused themselves from their beds early Tuesday morning got an early holiday present -- a total eclipse of the moon.

The lunar eclipse occurred on the same night as the winter solstice -- the longest night of the year. The last time the two events coincided was more than three centuries ago in 1638, NASA officials said.

A lunar eclipse takes place when the sun, earth, and moon are all perfectly aligned. When the moon passes behind the earth, the sun's rays are blocked from striking the moon.

The celestial spectacle lasted about 3 1/2 hours and was seen over North and Central America where skies were clear. Portions of Europe and Asia only caught part of the show.

The totality phase where the moon was completely immersed in Earth's shadow lasted 72 minutes.

It will happen again on Dec. 21, 2094, according to U.S. Naval Observatory spokesman Geoff Chester.

Lunar eclipses are safe to watch with the naked eye, unlike solar eclipses.

The next total lunar eclipse will occur in June 2011 and will not be visible from North America.

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