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Wednesday, February 20, 2008 - Page updated at 09:40 PM

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Check out the lunar eclipse tonight

The Seattle Times

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JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The last total lunar eclipse until 2010 occurs tonight, with cameo appearances by Saturn and the bright star Regulus. Above, a passenger jet flies across a lunar background in Seattle.

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It's been said that the lunar eclipse once saved Christopher Columbus and his crew.

And you can see one tonight as the Earth lines up perfectly between the sun and moon. It will be visible in the Seattle area from 5:43 p.m. until 9:09 p.m., although the total eclipse part will be from 7:01 until 7:51.

Even if the skies are not clear, said Dave Ingram, vice president of the Boeing Employees' Astronomical Society, "the moon should punch through ... it's like a train light coming over the horizon."

A lunar eclipse is not quite as exciting as a solar eclipse that dramatically turns day into night in a short time. A lunar eclipse takes its time as the moon slowly turns a reddish color because sunlight is bent around the earth's atmosphere and shines on the moon.

It's red for the same reason that sunsets are red.

"The earth's atmosphere is very good at scattering blue light, leaving the red light to shine on the moon," said Toby Smith, a University of Washington senior lecturer in astronomy.

To see the eclipse, you can just look up at the sky — it won't harm your eyes like a solar eclipse.

Or go to Green Lake, at 5970 W. Green Lake Way. N., where the Seattle Astronomical Society will have set up telescopes.

The Boeing Employees' Astronomical Society also will have telescopes set up at Van Doren's Landing Park, 21861 Russell Road, Kent.

As for the Columbus story, it was told by his son, Hernando, who traveled with his dad. In early 1504, Columbus and what remained of his crew (some had mutineered and left) were stranded in what is now Jamaica. The natives weren't very happy with these explorers, some of whom had plundered villages.

The natives decided to sell less food to Columbus, and ask higher prices.

Desperately needing food, Columbus told the natives that they'd see a sign from God that night. On his ship, Columbus had happened upon a copy of the astronomical calendar, "Ephermerides," which predicted a total eclipse of the moon on Feb. 29, 1504.

As the eclipse progressed, remembered Hernando Columbus, "the Indians grew so frightened that with great howling and lamentation they came running ... laden with provisions, and praying the Admiral to intercede with God . ... From that time forward they were diligent in providing us with all we needed "

The NASA map showing times for today's lunar eclipse shows east on the left side, and west on the right side. The reason is that you look down at the ground but up at the sky, an explanation that seems quite simple to astronomy buffs, but can baffle others.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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