The first total lunar eclipse in more than three years will sweep across North America tonight, possibly giving residents of Southern California a striking view of an oddly shaped, blood-red moon.
When the moon rises at 7:40 p.m., it will already be in the beginning phases of the eclipse.
The spectacle, which will peak between 8:13 p.m. and 9:06 p.m. local time and last until nearly 11 p.m., should be visible from most parts of the region once the moon rises above the horizon -- as long as skies are clear.
"People will see the moon hanging in the sky with an odd bite taken out of it, and the bite will get larger," said Ed Krupp, director of Griffith Observatory.
The color of an eclipsed moon ranges from bright orange to blood red to dark brown, according to Fred Espenak, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who maintains an eclipse prediction Web site.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Eclipse -- An article in the California section May 15 and a photo caption the next day incorrectly described last Thursday's lunar eclipse as the first total lunar eclipse visible from North America in three years. A total eclipse on Jan. 9, 2001, was visible from northern Alaska and Canada. A total eclipse on July 16, 2000, was visible from portions of western Alaska.
The color depends largely on atmospheric conditions at the time and can include a darker moon streaked with bright highlights. "You just don't know. It's a surprise until you see it," Krupp said.
Lunar eclipses occur when the moon passes through the Earth's shadow. The moon appears darker than usual in an eclipse because less of the sun's light is illuminating it. In tonight's event the moon is expected to be vivid red or orange because it will pass through the center of the Earth's shadow and not just the edge.
This eclipse will be visible from North and South America, Europe and Africa.
Unlike total solar eclipses, which last just a few minutes, the total eclipse phase of the lunar version goes on nearly an hour. It is safe to stare directly at the moon during a lunar eclipse.
The best viewing spot is one that will allow a clear view of the eastern horizon, so the moon can be seen while still low in the sky. Los Angeles residents could be treated to even more color than other viewers since smog can make the rising moon appear orange when it is low in the sky. That color could fade as the moon rises farther, only to return during the eclipse.
"The moon could start out orange, turn white and go red again," Krupp said. "That's what I'll be looking for."
Although Griffith Observatory is closed for renovation and expansion, it will host an eclipse viewing at its temporary location in Griffith Park. Several dozen telescopes operated by amateur astronomers in the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and the L.A. Sidewalk Astronomers will be set up on the south lawn of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Krupp said.
The next total lunar eclipse visible from Southern California will occur in the early evening Nov. 8.