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winter solstice & lunar eclipse

Astronomy enthusiasts across North America will witness a lunar eclipse on the evening of December 21st.

A lunar eclipse takes place when the sun, earth and moon are all perfectly aligned with the Earth in the middle. When the moon passes behind the earth, the sun's rays are blocked from striking the moon. This can only occur when the moon is full.

Unlike a solar eclipse, which can only be seen for a few moments from any specific spot, a lunar eclipse can be viewed for several hours.

The eclipse will happen Monday night on the West Coast and during the early hours Tuesday on the East Coast.

According to NASA, the total phase should last about three and a half hours when it begins as a partial eclipse at 1:33 a.m. ET and it will finish at 5:01 a.m. ET. The totality phase -- when the moon is entirely inside Earth's shadow -- will last a little approximately 72 minutes.

This year's only lunar eclipse actually coincides with the winter solstice, meaning that the moon will appear high in the night sky.

There will be two total lunar eclipses in 2011 -- one in June and one in December. North America will miss the June show and witness only a part of next December's eclipse.

More about the Dec. 21 lunar eclipse at NASA's website.

Photo montage by sweet L.S.

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