Cosmology and astronomy
Solar eclipse 2017
What are solar eclipses, why do they occur, and the types of solar eclipses.
On August 21, 2017, the mainland United States will experience an event that hasn’t happened across the entire country in about a century - a total solar eclipse!
A solar eclipse is one of the most spectacular events you can ever see. The sky goes dark, and the stars come out just like it is nighttime. Ancient people who witnessed these events viewed them with reverence and considered them signs from the gods. There are many important dates connected with these events, such as the birth of the prophet Mohammed and the death of Jesus.
People will travel for hundreds of miles to view this phenomenon.
What is a solar eclipse?
As the Earth orbits the Sun, the Moon orbits the Earth. This creates the different phases of the moon.
Sometimes when the three objects line up we get an eclipse. When the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth during the New Moon phase, we can get a solar eclipse (see Figure 1 below).
It seems like we should get a solar eclipse every month, but we don't. That's because the Moon’s path takes it a little bit above and below the Earth-Sun plane. The spots where it crosses are called nodes.
It is only when the Moon passes through one of these nodes while between the Earth and the Sun that we have a solar eclipse.
Types of solar eclipses
There are several different types of solar eclipses, which are determined by how far the Moon is from Earth and how precisely the bodies are aligned.
You might be wondering how the Moon's distance from the Earth changes. The Moon orbits the Earth not in a perfect circle, but in an elliptical path.
This means that sometimes the Moon is closer to the Earth than other times, giving us the following types of eclipses.
- Annular - This type of eclipse happens when the Moon is too far from the Earth to completely block out the Sun, (the tip in figure 1 doesn’t reach the Earth) and we see a ring of the Sun surrounding the Moon. We would see the following:
- Partial eclipse - This is the type we see if we’re in the (see figure 1). We would see something like this:
- Hybrid eclipse - This is the rare type of eclipse that is annular for some people and a total solar eclipse for others, because of the curvature of the Earth.
- Total solar eclipse - This is the type that we will have on August 21, 2017. The Moon will be passing between the Earth and Sun at just the right distance that it will block out the entire Sun for those in the path of the umbra. These occur about every 18 months somewhere on the Earth. The band of the eclipse is narrow because the Moon is much smaller than the Sun (by about 400 times!). This type of eclipse only lasts a few minutes at most because it requires an extremely precise geometry. Check out the images below.
Can I look directly at the solar eclipse?
Never look directly at the Sun. Never. NEVER! Doing so will cause blindness. However, you may view the solar eclipse using special solar eclipse glasses or by making a solar eclipse viewer yourself at home. Check for recommendations from NASA.
With your solar eclipse glasses, you can see some pretty cool features. One is called “Bailey’s beads”. As the Moon eclipses the Sun, some rays of sunlight can remain visible because of the rugged lunar topography.
In addition, there is the “diamond ring” effect, which is visible at at the beginning and end of a solar eclipse. The last bits of sunlight passing over the Moon’s edge combined with the faint outer part of the Sun create an effect that looks like a shining diamond ring.
Scientists have learned a lot about the Universe by studying solar eclipses. We know more about the structure of the sun, and also that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was correct!
People who have seen a solar eclipse say you'll forever be changed. If you are lucky enough to see the eclipse, please share your experiences in the comments below!
For more information about the scientists mentioned in this article, check out some of our other resources!
Want to join the conversation?
- Why will looking at the sun/moon during the total solar eclipse damage your eyes? I get that looking a the sun obviously is not the smartest thing to do, but people emphasize the fact that looking at the eclipse will severely damage your eyes, and it seems like it's a different thing all together.(16 votes)
- It is no different than looking directly at the Sun, which is also unsafe.(16 votes)
- A lot of times in my life, I've heard that I should NEVER looked at a partial eclipse with the naked eye, but I never fully understood why. Does anybody know?(4 votes)
- Never look directly at the Sun. Never. Doing so will cause blindness.(4 votes)
- Why do we get partial ecpilse.(4 votes)
- Most places on Earth aren't directly in the path of the Moon's shadow, so they only see the Moon partially cover the Sun as it eclipses it.(2 votes)
- If you look at the sun why do you get blind(2 votes)
- It burns the retina inside your eye. Just like when you use a magnifying glass to burn a piece of paper in the sun. Don't do it.(5 votes)
- Will I be able to see this Solar Eclipse from the UK?(3 votes)
- Yes. The UK will be able to see the eclipse. (About 4% coverage in London, England, for reference.) :)(3 votes)
- Why can't every body on Earth see the solar eclipse(1 vote)
- Why don't people in paris get covered by your shadow?
It's the same idea. The eclipse is the moon's shadow. It doesn't fall on everyone.(6 votes)
- I don't get it. Why do we have to wear glasses during a solar eclipse? Why will looking at the sun/moon during the total solar eclipse damage your eyes?(3 votes)
- The sun is so bright it damages your eyes.(3 votes)
- How come all of us can't see the solar eclipse? Why does it only happen at a specific time/place? Do the penumbra and umbra affect how you see this phenomenon?(2 votes)
- If you go outside on a sunny day and look at your shadow, does it cover the entire Earth? Or does it only cover a tiny portion?
Now, imagine an ant on the ground where your shadow is located. While your shadow passes the ant, it sees the sun get eclipsed by you. Yet another ant outside your shadow would not see the eclipse.
This is essentially the same reason why the solar eclipse is only visible in certain spots. The shadow of the Moon on the Earth is small and only moves over a select path of the Earth each time. If you aren't directly in that path, you will only see a partial eclipse, if any.(3 votes)
- is there any other way to look at the solor eclipse without the glasses? if so what are they. how bad can it damage your eyes.(2 votes)
- One way to look at a solar eclipse without glasses is in the path of totality which is where the moon completely covers the disk of the sun. Another way is to make a pinhole projector https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/how-make-pinhole-projector-view-solar-eclipse. Other wise I do not believe that there is a way to view the eclipse without glasses.(3 votes)
- Some people say that even though they wear the glasses, it still hurts. How can that happen?(2 votes)
- Even though your eyes are protected by wearing the glasses, it is still dangerous to look at the sun for prolonged periods of time through them. While the damage will be minimal if your eyes hurt a bit, it is still a bit of damage, but in the long run it probably won't affect you. Solar Eclipse glasses can also expire so it's possible that people were wearing older ones, but that is unlikely.(2 votes)