STANSBURY PARK, Tooele County — The moon had a Halloween eeriness, said Lowell Lyon, one of two dozen sky watchers who stayed up until nearly dawn Tuesday to enjoy a total eclipse of the moon.

As the night began, the full moon was a great, white, glaring beacon. By 4 a.m., when the eclipse was total, it had turned a lovely, dark, rusty orange.

"It's just hanging there in the sky, looking kind of eerie," Lyon said.

Lyon was last year's president of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. Club members, TV and newspaper reporters, and other interested people gathered at the group's observatory complex to witness the event. Lyon has seen a number of lunar eclipses, he said, but this was one of the best.

Earth's shadow began nibbling at the upper left quadrant of the moon and the bite kept expanding. It was an irregular chomp, gradually darkening more and more of the orb.

The show was punctuated by a few intense white streaks in the sky — meteors — which brought excited comments from watchers who sat on lawn chairs or stood beside telescopes along the sidewalk outside the observatory. Inside, tables were heaped with bagels, cream cheese and soft drinks for anyone who wished to partake.

As the partial phase ended, a bright crescent remained at the lower right limb. Directly above it a faintly blue-gray band appeared while the rest of the moon looked rusty. The mix of red, orange and brown tones came from dust in Earth's atmosphere, as the sun reflected from the sky and projected color onto the moon. The color remained throughout the eclipse but became darker as the moon slid deep into the umbra, the densest part of Earth's shadow.

As the crescent shrank, the band immediately above took on a bluer tone. Finally, the ends of the crescent reached upward, then disappeared. Then the moon was a mix of russet colors. It was playing hide-and-seek with clouds.

During totality, Luna's familiar face changed expression. Besides the spectacular colors, mares became much darker, appearing as if they really were seas. Rays that emanate from the crater Tycho looked like brighter, curving spider arms crossing yellow plains.

When our satellite was so dark that it looked like an elderly tangerine, stars — at all other times impossible to see near the moon — now shone forth, some dim, others much brighter. One high to the upper left above the orange orb was distinctly blue.

Usually, the basins called the Sea of Serenity and the Sea of Tranquility seem barely separated. But this night, a much lighter stretch of landscape curved between them. The ridges of impact basins seemed to define some of the moon's dry seas.

Before 5 a.m., the moon went behind a huge cloud bank and the show ended.

"It was an excellent one," said Bruce Grim, a member of SLAS who often volunteers his time improving the observatory.

"The color was nice and orange and red. It's one of the best I've seen despite the fact there are clouds."

Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, exclaimed, "The weather god smiled on us." He had worried about rainstorms coming from the Pacific, but "then the clouds parted."

It wasn't just an eclipse, he said, but "a pretty eclipse." The colors seemed brownish-orange, he said.

The event took so long that the moon was setting, still partly eclipsed, at dawn.

Chuck Hards, of West Valley City, commented that part of the moon went through the central section of the umbra.

"Whenever that happens you get a good, long duration," he said.

Salt Lake City resident Rodger Fry said it was a beautiful eclipse and that the intermittent clouds added to the fascination. He marveled at stars "that became visible to the naked eye when the moon becomes shaded by the Earth's shadow."

When the moon is full the white glare makes it seem flat as a coin. But during a total lunar eclipse it looks more like a ball. Fry noted that the red-brown light "cast more of a spherical view."

According to NASA, the next total lunar eclipse that will be visible from Utah will happen happens Feb. 21, 2008, but the moon will rise eclipsed. The next time a complete eclipse will be visible from Utah will be Dec. 21, 2010.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com