The Moon is Earth's only natural satellite and is the fifth largest satellite in the Solar System. It is the largest natural satellite in the Solar System relative to the size of its planet, a quarter the diameter of Earth and 1/81 its mass, and is the second densest satellite after Io. It is in synchronous rotation with Earth, always showing the same face; the near side is marked with dark volcanic maria among the bright ancient crustal highlands and prominent impact craters. It is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun, although its surface is actually very dark, with a similar reflectance to coal. Its prominence in the sky and its regular cycle of phases have since ancient times made the Moon an important cultural influence on language, the calendar, art and mythology. The Moon's gravitational influence produces the ocean tides and the minute lengthening of the day. The Moon's current orbital distance, about thirty times the diameter of the Earth, causes it to be the same size in the sky as the Sun—allowing the Moon to cover the Sun precisely in total solar eclipses.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes behind the earth so that the earth blocks the sun’s rays from striking the moon. This can occur only when the Sun, Earth and Moon are aligned exactly, or very closely so, with the Earth in the middle. Hence, there is always a full moon the night of a lunar eclipse. The type and length of an eclipse depend upon the Moon’s location relative to its orbital nodes. The next total lunar eclipse will occur on December 21, 2010. Unlike a solar eclipse, which can only be viewed from a certain relatively small area of the world, a lunar eclipse may be viewed from anywhere on the night side of the Earth. A lunar eclipse lasts for a few hours, whereas a total solar eclipse lasts for only a few minutes at any given place. Some lunar eclipses have been associated with important historical events.