Moonwatchers got a dazzling winter treat Thursday night.
They saw the most stunning lunar eclipse in years wherever skies were clear in North and South America, plus in parts of Africa and Europe. Scientists had predicted the event would be impressive. And the moon did put on quite a show, taking on a shining glow around its edges as darkness engulfed its center.
"It's a much brighter eclipse than we've had in recent years. It's a nice red color," said Duke Johnson, director of the SciWorks planetarium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
CBS News Correspondent Manuel Gallegus explains the shade of red. "When the moon goes into the Earth's shadow, the light is completely blocked from the full moon and you would expect to see a completely black moon. But all of the sun rises and all of the sunsets on the Earth at that time have red light bending into that shadow and some of it falls on the moon and gives it an odd red color."
Clouds lingered from the northeastern to northwestern United States during the eclipse. Still, most of the country saw an eyeful, even where city lights usually block out meteors and lesser spectacles in the sky. Museums and planetariums held eclipse viewing parties, hoping to seize on the mass appeal of skywatching that didn't demand binoculars or telescopes.
"You can tell people what's going to happen. But once they start seeing it, that's really cool," said George Fleenor, director of the Bishop Planetarium in Bradenton, Fla., where several hundred people feasted on pizza and barbecue as they watched.
In Springfield, Mass., more than 100 people -- mostly in families -- took shelter inside the Science Museum to view lunar eclipses in its planetarium, craft paper eclipse wheels and learn about the astronomy of the lunar eclipse that was spoiled by cloud cover and snow.
In Los Angeles, clouds that draped over the city cleared just in time for a perfect view of the eclipse as it reached its darkest stage. In Griffith Park, near the famous Hollywood sign, hundreds of people -- many clutching small telescopes or binoculars -- cheered approval.
The eclipse started around 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday as the moon began creeping visibly into the Earth's shadow with a darkened belt along the its left edge. Next, the phase of total shadow, when the moon climbed to its height over the East Coast, happened between 11:05 p.m. ET and 12:22 a.m. ET Friday. Finally, the moon imperceptibly slipped out of the last sliver of Earth's shadow at 2:24 a.m.
A major reason that this eclipse seemed particularly bright was scientists said the Earth's atmosphere had finally purged darkening chemicals spewed skyward in the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
But for some, the moon is a heavenly wonder that's more than a scientific fact.
"It's an astronomical phenomenon that has great influence on the Earth, that serves to remind us of where we come from," said Julio Nieto, who wtched with dozens of others from a plaza in Mexico City.
The last lunar eclipse was in September 1997. The next one, set for July 16, will be best seen on the West Coast.
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CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff