December 21st was not only the date of the 2011 Winter Solstice (a time when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun), or commonly referred to as the first day of winter, but began with a total lunar eclipse in the early morning hours.
The last time a total lunar eclipse occurred on the day of the Northern Winter Solstice was on December 21, 1638, 372 years ago.
For Turlockers, and others on the west coast, the eclipse began at about 10:30pm the night before and lasted until about 2am. The total eclipse happened around 11:40 here in Turlock. Turlockers were fortunate to see the eclipse while in some places overcast skies and the time of occurrence prevented them from experiencing the historical eclipse.
The moment of a total lunar eclipse lasted 72 minutes according to NASA.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth lines up directly between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun’s rays and casting a shadow on the moon. As the moon moves deeper and deeper into the Earth’s shadow, the moon changes color before your very eyes, turning from gray to an orange or deep shade of red.
Why did the moon turn orange/red?
According to NASA the moon takes on this new color because indirect sunlight is still able to pass through Earth’s atmosphere and cast a glow on the moon. Our atmosphere filters out most of the blue colored light, leaving the red and orange hues that we see during a lunar eclipse. Extra particles in the atmosphere, from say a recent volcanic eruption, will cause the moon to appear a darker shade of red.
It will be the last chance for sky watchers in the continental U.S. to see a total lunar eclipse until April 15, 2014. The next lunar eclipse that occurs before 2014 will not be visible from the continental U.S.
People will not have to wait 372 years before seeing the next rarity of a Winter Solstice total lunar eclipse. The next one takes place in the near future of December 21, 2094.