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Watch a virtual eclipse

China Photos via Getty Images

A composite photo shows the progress of the lunar eclipse on Tuesday, as seen
from Chongqing, China. The Pacific Rim had front-row seats for the event.


Most Americans didn't get a chance to see the year's first total lunar eclipse back in March - but we were in a much better position for the year's second lunar eclipse, taking place in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

For many on the East Coast, the moon faded away just when the show was getting good, with totality beginning at 5:52 a.m. ET. The timing was somewhat better for the West Coast, where the eclipse played out during the middle of the night. But folks who were outside the prime eclipse zone, or frustrated by cloudy skies, could still get a taste of totality by tuning in real-time Webcasts from around the world. And if you slept through the whole eclipse, never fear: You can still catch the highlights online.

The University of North Dakota has done eclipse Webcasts for years, and this time they set up their telescopes on the roof of the physics building at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

"We were worried at first," UND physics professor Tim Young told me Monday. "On Sunday, it was raining and cloudy, and the forecast didn't look good. But today it looks like the sun is going to come through. The forecast looks partly cloudy, which is good. Sometimes that actually looks pretty cool."

The Webcast did look pretty cool - and it's safe to say that thousands flocked to see the eclipse online. Young's team also offered a chatroom where virtual viewers around the world can register their reactions and ask for help if necessary. "People from European countries, from Japan and Asia, type in to see how it's going," Young said. "It's really fun to see how many people are watching the Webcast simultaneously."

Some chatroom visitors typed in their observations as they watched in person. "It's rust red invisible," one said.

For others, seeing the Webcast was the only way to experience the eclipse. "Thank you for traveling to bring this eclipse to us on the Web," read one comment. "It's awesome to watch."

Elsewhere, Discovery Channel Australia streamed the eclipse and offered a live chat with Springbrook Research Observatory's Andre Clayden. I couldn't get into the chat during the peak hour - the virtual room was too crowded. The Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Ga., also scheduled a Webcast, but I didn't get much of a view there. It turned out the best view was right from my front porch.

Total lunar eclipses are much easier to observe than total solar eclipses, which can be seen only for a few minutes from a narrow track of territory. In contrast, Tuesday's lunar totality was visible from a wide swath of Earth for almost an hour and a half.

"It's the longest lunar eclipse in seven years, mainly just because it goes right through the main part of [Earth's] shadow," Young told me. "There's some indication that it might be more colorful, too. ... Supposedly it's going to be redder than usual."

That prediction turned out to be correct: From my vantage point, the eclipsed moon looked like a dim Japanese lantern, hanging in the sky. The reddish glow results when Earth's atmosphere refracts the faint light of countless sunrises and sunsets onto the lunar disk, as explained in this archived article. It was quite a sight - and quite different from the new-moon phase we see every month.

If you missed seeing the eclipse in real time, either in person or on the Web, you can check out this time-lapse video of the partial phase. Young promises to make an archived video available via UND's Web site. The Mount Wilson Observatory provided some nice snapshots of the red moon as seen from its Towercam. And even while the eclipse was going on, imagery started flowing in to SpaceWeather.com. (For comparison's sake, here's a gallery of images from the March eclipse.)

In the days and weeks ahead, keep looking up in the sky, and on the Web as well. Tuesday's eclipse was part of a string of skywatching highlights - starting with the Perseid meteor shower earlier this month, and continuing with Saturday's Aurigid meteor shower as well as Sept. 11's partial solar eclipse.