Ring of Fire: Catch the Only Annular Solar Eclipse of 2017 This Sunday

annular eclipse
annular eclipse
The May 2012 annular solar eclipse. Image credit and copyright: Kevin Baird.

‘Tis the season… eclipse season that is, as a spectacular “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse marks the end of the first of two eclipse cycles for 2017. And although the annular path for this eclipse passes through some sparsely populated parts of the southern hemisphere, we just might get some amazing live views, courtesy of modern technology and some intrepid observers willing to adventurously trek after the shadow of the Moon.

Unlike many of the uncertainties in life, eclipses are sure to happen, a certainty ordained by orbital mechanics. Well, okay, the Vogons could always blow the Moon to smithereens this fine Thursday afternoon… but otherwise, we’re in for a true celestial show.

Eclipse circumstances: Prospects and prognostications.

The eclipse begins far out in the South Pacific at sunrise, and the path of annularity makes first landfall along the southern coast of Chile at 13:31 Universal Time (UT). The eclipse antumbra then races eastward over Argentina at 2.5 kilometers per second, as the “ring of fire” heads out over the South Atlantic where it reaches “maximum annularity” of just 44 seconds 900 kilometers southeast of Brazil. Finally, the 30 kilometer wide path touches down over Angola, nicks Zambia and ends at sunset over a southern track along the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The eclipse is partial across southern portion of South America, the Falkland Islands a swath of Antarctica and southwestern Africa.

2017 Annular Eclipse
The aspects of the February 26th, 2017 annular eclipse. Credit: F.Espenak/NASA/GSFC

Here are the partial prospects for select cities:

City – Maximum obscuration – Time

La Paz, Bolivia – 5% – 13:37 UT

Buenos Aires – 67% – 13:53 UT

The Falkland Islands – 71% – 13:56 UT

Palmer Station, Antarctica – 31% – 14:01 UT

Cape Town, South Africa – 41% – 15:59 UT

Luanda, Angola – 83% – 16:32 UT

eclipse animation
An animation of Sunday’s eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/A.T. Sinclair

Annular vs. Total

Sunday’s eclipse is the first of two solar eclipses for 2017, and the only annular eclipse for the year. We get an annular eclipse when the Moon is near apogee (which occurred eight days ago on February 18th) and the Earth is near perihelion (which occurred last month on January 4th). At this time, the apparent size of the Moon is too small to cover the Sun as seen from the Earth, resulting instead in a brilliant annulus or “ring of fire” in the sky. Likewise, we refer to the shadow trace of this ring across the Earth as an antumbra, instead of the familiar umbra of a total solar eclipse.

Strange as it may seem, annular eclipses are slightly more common than total solar eclipses in our current epoch, and will become increasingly more so as the Moon slowly recedes from the Earth.

annular eclipse
The alignment needed for an annular eclipse. Credit: The National Observatory of Japan.

Observing and Eclipse Safety

Unlike a total solar eclipse, safety precautions must be taken during all phases of an annular solar eclipse. We witnessed the 1994 annular eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie, and can attest that 1% of the Sun is still pretty darn bright. Use only telescope and camera filters or glasses designed specifically for solar observing, even during the annular phase. Venus should also be a splendid sight for those observing near sunset from Africa, as the Cytherian world shines at -4.3 magnitude 34 degrees east of the Sun. Viewers in southwestern African nations will also be treated to a setting Sun during the eclipse, affording the chance to include the spectacle in shots along with foreground objects on the local horizon if skies are clear.

Sun Venus Annular
The eclipse versus Venus as seen from the path through Angola. Credit: Stellarium.

Clouded out? Live on the wrong part of the planet? There are actually several options to watch the eclipse live:

the venerable SLOOH plans to webcast the eclipse.

Time and Date will provide a webcast starting at 12:05 UT from Angola:

Watch this space: we’ll be dropping in more live webcasts of the eclipse as they turn up.

Update: VTR Chile may provide a live broadcast come eclipse time.

Plan on doing an ad hoc webcast of Sunday’s eclipse from anywhere along the annular or partial track? Let us know!

Sunspot activity is currently at a lull, and the Earthward face of Sol may well be blank come eclipse day. At an eclipse magnitude of 99.22%, this eclipse juuuusst misses being a hybrid/total. It’s also possible to catch the brief flashes of Bailey’s Beads along the edge of the antumbral graze line.

Tales of the Saros

This eclipse is member 29 of 71 for saros cycle 140, stretching all the way back to April 16th, 1512 and running out to June 1st, 2774. If you caught the February 16th, 1999 annular eclipse from the Australian Outback, then you witnessed the last eclipse in saros 140. Stick around until March 9th, 2035 and you can then complete an exeligmos or triple saros cycle, joining an elite club of eclipse-chasing adventurers, indeed.

Eclipses occur in pairs or sometimes triplets, when the nodes where the Moon’s orbit intersect the position of the Sun and the Earth’s shadow along the ecliptic plane. These nodes move due to orbital precession of the Moon’s path around the Earth. If the Moon weren’t inclined relative to the ecliptic, we’d see a lunar and solar eclipse every synodic month. The February 11th penumbral eclipse ushered in the current eclipse season, which ends with this weekend’s annular eclipse.

The penumbral eclipse from earlier this month, ushering in eclipse season 1 of 2 for 2017. Credit and Copyright: Rob Sparks.

ISS and Views from Space (-ace -ace) Prospects

There is an ISS transit over SW Africa at around 15:45 UT, offering a chance to catch a transit of the station across the partially eclipsed Sun. Sun observing spacecraft in low Earth orbit including Hinode and Proba-2 also usually get good views of the eclipse.

New Moon sightings: And for the rest of the world, the hunt will be on to recover the slim waxing crescent Moon post-eclipse on the evening of Monday, February 27th. This lunation, first sighting opportunity without optical assistance favors southeast Asia.

Then, its on to eclipse season number two, featuring a partial lunar eclipse on August 7th, and then the big ticket event: the total eclipse of the Sun spanning the contiguous United States from coast to coast. Umbraphiles have been planning for this one and its brief 160 seconds maximum of totality for well over a decade now, no lie. Where will YOU be?

-Send those eclipse pics in to Universe Today Flickr.

-Read more about eclipses, occultations, comets and more for the year in our free e-book: 101 Astronomical Events for 2017.

-Eclipse science fiction? Read our original sci-fi tales Exeligmos, The Syzygy Gambit, Peak Season and more.

Watch the Moon Make a Pass at Earth’s Shadow, Then Kiss Regulus This Valentine’s Weekend

Regulus Occultion
Regulus Occultion
The Moon occults Regulus of January 15th, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Lucca Ruggiero

In the southern hemisphere this weekend in the ‘Land of Oz?’ Are you missing out on the passage of Comet 45/P Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, and the penumbral lunar eclipse? Fear not, there’s an astronomical event designed just for you, as the Moon occults (passes in front of) the bright star Regulus on the evening of Saturday, January 11th.

The entire event is custom made for the continent of Australia and New Zealand, occurring under dark skies. Now for the bad news: the waning gibbous Moon will be less than 14 hours past Full during the event, meaning that the ingress (disappearance) of Regulus will occur along its bright leading limb and egress (reappearance) will occur on the dark limb. We prefer occultations during waxing phase, as the star winks out on the dark limb and seems to slowly fade back in on the bright limb.

The footprint for the February 11th occultation of Regulus by the Moon. Image credit: Occult 4.2 software

The International Occultation Timing Association has a complete list of precise ingress/egress times for cities located across the continent. An especially interesting region to catch the event lies along the northern graze line across the sparsely populated Cape York peninsula, just north of Cairns.

The northern grazeline for the February 11th occultation of Regulus by the Moon. Graphic by author.

The Moon occults Aldebaran and then Regulus six days later during every lunation in 2017. This is occultation number three in a cycle of 19 running from December 18, 2016 to April 24, 2018. The Moon occults Regulus 214 times in the 21st century, and Regulus is currently the closest bright star to the ecliptic plane, just 27′ away.

We’ve also got a very special event just under 14 hours prior, as a penumbral lunar eclipse occurs, visible on all continents… except Australia. Mid-eclipse occurs at 00:45 Universal Time (UT, Saturday morning on February 11th), or 7:45 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST) on the evening of Friday, February 10th, when observers may note a dusky shading on the northern limb of the Moon as the Moon just misses passing through the dark edge of the Earth’s inner umbral shadow. Regulus will sit less than seven degrees off of the lunar limb at mid-eclipse Friday night.

How often does an eclipsed Moon occult a bright star? Well, stick around until over four centuries from now on February 22nd, 2445, and observers based around the Indian Ocean region can watch just such an event, as the eclipsed Moon also occults Regulus. Let’s see, I should have my consciousness downloaded into my second android body by then…

A graphic study of the simultaneous lunar eclipse and occultation of Regulus in 2445. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Fred Espenak/Occult 4.2/Stellarium.

We’ll be streaming the Friday night eclipse live from Astroguyz HQ here in Spring Hill, Florida starting at 7:30 PM EST/00:30 UT, wifi-willing. Astronomer Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project will also carry the eclipse live starting at 22:15 UT on the night of Friday, February 10th.

This eclipse also marks the start of eclipse season one of two, which climaxes with an annular eclipse crossing southern Africa and South America on February 26th. The second and final eclipse season of 2017 starts with a partial lunar eclipse on August 7th, which sets us up for the Great American Eclipse crossing the United States from coast to coast on August 21st, 2017.

A lunar occultation of Regulus also provides a shot at a unique scientific opportunity. Spectroscopic measurements suggest that the primary main sequence star possesses a small white dwarf companion, a partner which has never been directly observed. This unseen white dwarf may – depending on the unknown orientation of its orbit – make a brief appearance during ingress or egress for a fleeting split second, when the dark limb of the Moon has covered dazzling Regulus. High speed video might just nab a double step occlusion, as the white dwarf companion is probably about 10,000 times fainter than Regulus at magnitude +11 at the very brightest. Regulus is located 79 light years distant.

Our best results for capturing an occultation of a star or planet by the Moon have always been with a video camera aimed straight through our 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. The trick is always to keep the star visible in the frame near the brilliant Full Moon. Cropping the Moon out of the field as much as possible can help somewhat. Set up early, to work the bugs out of focusing, alignment, etc. We also run WWV radio in the background for an audible time hack on the video.

The January 15th, 2017 occultation of Regulus by the Moon. Image credit and copyright: Lucca Ruggiero.

The best occultation of Regulus by the Moon for North America in 2017 occurs on October 15th, when the Moon is at waning crescent phase. Unfortunately, the occultation of Regulus by asteroid 163 Erigone back in 2014 was clouded out, though the planet Venus occults the star on October 1st, 2044. Let’s see, by then I’ll be…

Comets and eclipses and occultations, oh my. It’s a busy weekend for observational astronomy, for sure. Consider it an early Valentine’s Day weekend gift from the Universe.

Webcasting the eclipse or the occultation this weekend? Let us know, and send those images of either event to Universe Today’s Flickr forum.

Read about eclipses, occultations and more tales of astronomy in our yearly guide 101 Astronomical Events For 2017, free from Universe Today.

Ancient Annular: Dating Joshua’s Eclipse

Annular Eclipse
Annular Eclipse
The May 2012 annular eclipse low to the horizon. Image credit and copyright: Jared Bowens.

Astronomy turns up in fascinating junctures in history. Besides just the romantic angle, we can actually pin down contextual events in ancient history if we can tie them in with a spectacle witnessed in the heavens. A recent look at the story of ‘Joshua’s eclipse’ is one such possible tale.

Lunar and solar eclipses are especially dramatic events, something that would have really made the ancients stop and take notice. A recent study published in an edition of the Beit Mikra Journal (in Hebrew) by researchers from Ben Gurion University may have pinpointed a keypoint in biblical history: the date of the Battle of Gibeon.

This study first came to our attention via the Yahoo! SEML eclipse message board and a recent Times of Israel article. The article makes mention of NASA eclipse data, which is free for anyone to peruse looking over the five millennium canon of solar and lunar eclipses… hey, it’s what we do for fun.

We did obtain a look at a translation of the abstract from the paper, which ends with the following:

“In the period between 1500-1000 BCE which is the relevant time for the biblical story, there were only three eclipses seen from Jerusalem, one total eclipse and two annular eclipses. We show that the most appropriate one is the annular solar eclipse that occurred on October 30 in 1206 BCE at sunset, an appropriate date for the time of conquest and the early settlement period, at the time of Marneptah’ rule in Egypt.”

The path of the eclipse of October 30th, 1206 BC. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Espenak/Meeus.

Joshua 10:12 reads: “Sun, stand still upon Gibeon; and you, Moon, in the valley of Ayalon.”

According to tradition, Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still long enough to defeat the Canaanite kings. Of course, the Sun and the Moon still move during an eclipse be it lunar or solar, though its mostly our planet that’s doing the moving. Still, the actual biblical term “-dom” is open to interpretation, and the researchers chose the Hebrew “to become dark” instead of the King James translation of “to stand still,” or “stationary”.

If this Bible verse sounds familiar, that’s because it turns up in astronomical history again in medieval Europe, when Church proponents used it as supposed proof of geocentricism.

Mid eclipse
Mid-eclipse over central Israel at sunset on October 30th, 1206 BC. Credit: Stellarium.

It’s tough to predict eclipses in distant time. The rotation of the Earth is not entirely smooth, and the minute change in the length of the day (known as Delta T) accumulates to the point that a leap second must be inserted on occasion to keep observed time in sync with reckoned terrestrial time. Braking action by the Sun and Moon, tectonic activity, and even global warming all cause small changes in the Earth’s rotation that slowly build up over time. This means that it’s tough to predict eclipses more than a few thousand years out, where at best we can only judge which continent they might have or will fall on.

“Not everyone likes the idea of using physics to prove things from the Bible,” said researcher Hezi Yitzhak to the Israeli news site Haaretz. “We do not claim that everything written in the Bible is true or took place… but there is also a grain of historical truth that has archaeological evidence behind it.”

The eclipse in question occurred on October 30th, 1206 BC. This was an annular eclipse, crossing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and ending over Israel and Jordan at sunset. Researchers pegged this suspect eclipse because of its fit for historical context and visibility. Annularity for the eclipse was 86% obscuration and started at an altitude of nine degrees above the western horizon, and would have still been in progress during its final phases at sunset.

The end of the eclipse path over modern day Israel and Jordan. Credit: NASA/GSFC data.

Lots of eclipses turn up in history. A partial lunar eclipse preceded the fall of Constantinople in 1453, seeming to fulfill prophecy. Solar and lunar eclipses made a showing at lots of battles, including the Second Battle of Syracuse on August 28th, 412 BC and during the Zulu War on January 22nd, 1879. A solar eclipse on June 15th, 762 BC mentioned in Assyrian texts pinpoints a crucial time in ancient history, giving us a benchmark for later dates. It’s worth noting that prior to modern times, it seems that battles were the only thing worth writing down…

Still, it’s interesting to imagine the scene as ancient armies clash, only to stop and gaze at the wondrous sight on the horizon: a pair of glowing horns, hanging low in the pre-dusk sky. We caught the 1994 annular eclipse from the Sandusky, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie and can attest that even a 98% eclipsed Sun is still pretty bright, giving even a clear day a deep steely blue tint. Lower to the horizon though, an annular eclipse is more readily visible to the unaided eye.

You have to be careful when attempting to read ancient texts as astronomical guide books. Great minds, including Kepler and Newton, expended lots of mental juice on attempting to link biblical accounts such as Ezekiel’s Wheel and the Star of Bethlehem with actual astronomical events. We’ll probably never know for sure if a coincidental conjunction graced the sky over the manger in Bethlehem, or if Ezekiel saw the breakup of a brilliant comet, but it’s always fun to imagine and wonder. Then, there’s the inevitable embellishment that accompanies stories that may have been first sparked by meteor showers or sundogs, centuries ago. We don’t, for example, see flaming swords or banners emblazoned with Latin inscriptions across the sky today, though if you can believe medieval accounts, they seemed common back in the day.

And don’t forget: we’ve got our very own history making eclipse (hopefully sans battlefields) this coming August 21st, 2017 crossing the United States from coast-to-coast.

Though far from conclusive, the results of the study concerning Joshua’s eclipse and the battle of Gideon are interesting to consider. Most likely we’ll never truly know what happened that ancient afternoon, unless, of course, we perfect time travel. What other events remain hidden and lost to time, ready for some historical astro-sleuth to uncover them?

-Can’t get enough of eclipses, historical or otherwise? Check out our original eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales Exeligmos, Peak Season and Class Field Trip.

See a Flirtatious Lunar Eclipse This Friday Night

This sequence of photos taken on October 18, 2013 nicely show the different phases of a penumbral lunar eclipse. The coming penumbral eclipse will likely appear even darker because Earth’s shadow will shade to the top (northern) half of the Moon rich in dark lunar “seas” at maximum. Credit: AstroTripper 2000

Not many people get excited about a penumbral eclipse, but when it’s a deep one and the only lunar eclipse visible in North America this year, it’s worth a closer look. What’s more, this Friday’s eclipse happens during convenient, early-evening viewing hours. No getting up in the raw hours before dawn.

Lunar eclipses — penumbral, partial and total — always occur at Full Moon, when the Moon, Earth and Sun line up squarely in a row in that order. Only then does the Moon pass through the shadow cast by our planet. Credit: Starry Night with additions by the author

During a partial or total lunar eclipse, the full moon passes first through the Earth’s outer shadow, called the penumbra, before entering the dark, interior shadow or umbra. The penumbra is nowhere near as dark as the inner shadow because varying amounts of direct sunlight filter into it, diluting its duskiness.

To better understand this, picture yourself watching the eclipse from the center of the Moon’s disk (latitude 0°, longitude 0°). As you look past the Earth toward the Sun, you would see the Sun gradually covered or eclipsed by the Earth. Less sunlight would be available to illuminate the Moon, so your friends back on Earth would notice a gradual dimming of the Moon, very subtle at first but becoming more noticeable as the eclipse progressed.

This diagram shows an approximation of the Sun’s position and size as viewed by an observer at the center of the lunar disk during Friday’s penumbral eclipse. More sunlight shines across the Moon early in the eclipse, making the penumbral shadow very pale, but by maximum (right), half the sun is covered and the Moon appears darker and duskier as seen from Earth. During a total lunar eclipse, the sun is hidden completely. Credit: Bob King with Earth image by NASA

As the Moon’s leading edge approached the penumbra-umbra border, the Sun would narrow to a glaring sliver along Earth’s limb for our lucky lunar observer. Back on Earth, we’d notice that the part of the Moon closest to the umbra looked strangely gray and dusky, but the entire lunar disk would still be plainly visible. That’s what we’ll see during Friday’s eclipse. The Moon will slide right up to the umbra and then roll by, never dipping its toes in its dark waters.

During a partial eclipse, the Moon keeps going into the umbra, where the Sun is completely blocked from view save for dash of red light refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere into what would otherwise be an inky black shadow. This eclipse, the Moon only flirts with the umbra.

The moon’s orbit is tilted 5.1 degrees in relation to Earth’s orbit, so most Full Moons, it passes above or below the shadow and no eclipse occurs. Credit: Bob King

Because the moon’s orbit is tilted about 5° from the plane of Earth’s orbit, it rarely lines up for a perfect bullseye total eclipse: Sun – Earth – Moon in a straight line in that order. Instead, the moon typically passes a little above or below (north or south) of the small, circle-shaped shadow cast by our planet, and no eclipse occurs. Or it clips the outer edge of the shadow and we see — you guessed it — a penumbral eclipse.

Earth’s shadow varies in size depending where you are in it. Standing on the ground during twilight, it can grow to cover the entire sky, but at the moon’s distance of 239,000 miles, the combined penumbra and umbra span just 2.5° of sky or about the width of your thumb held at arm’s length.

The moon passes through Earth’s outer shadow, the penumbra, on Feb. 10-11. In the umbra, the sun is blocked from view, but the outer shadow isn’t as dark because varying amounts of sunlight filter in to dilute the darkness. Times are Central Standard. Credit: F. Espenak, NASA’s GFSC with additions by the author

Because the Moon travels right up to the umbra during Friday’s eclipse, it will be well worth watching.The lower left  or eastern half of the moon will appear obviously gray and blunted especially around maximum eclipse as it rises in the eastern sky that Friday evening over North and South America. I should mention here that the event is also visible from Europe, Africa, S. America and much of Asia.

This map shows where the eclipse will be visible. Most of the U.S. will see at least part of the event. Credit: F. Espenak, NASA’s GFSC

For the U.S., the eastern half of the country gets the best views. Here are CST and UT times for the different stages. To convert from CST, add an hour for Eastern, subtract one hour for Mountain and two hours for Pacific times. UT stands for Universal Time, which is essentially the same as Greenwich or “London” Time except when Daylight Saving Time is in effect:

This is a simulated view of the Full Snow Moon at maximum eclipse Friday evening low in the eastern sky alongside the familiar asterism known as the Sickle of Leo. Created with Stellarium

Eclipse begins: 4:34 p.m. (22:34 p.m. UT)
Maximum eclipse (moon deepest in shadow): 6:44 p.m. (00:43 UT Feb. 11)
Eclipse ends: 8:53 p.m. (2:53 UT Feb. 11)

You can see that the eclipse plays out over more than 4 hours, though I don’t expect most of us will either be able or would want to devote that much time. Instead, give it an hour or so when the Moon is maximally in shadow from 6 to 7:30 p.m. CST; 7-8:30 EST; 5-6:30 p.m. MST and around moonrise Pacific time.

This should be a fine and obvious eclipse because around the time of maximum, the darkest part of the penumbra shades the dark, mare-rich northern hemisphere of the Moon. Dark plus dark equals extra dark! Good luck and clear skies!

101 Astronomical Events for 2017: A Teaser

It’s that time of year again… time to look ahead at the top 101 astronomical events for the coming year.

And this year ’round, we finally took the plunge. After years of considering it, we took the next logical step in 2017 and expanded our yearly 101 Astronomical Events for the coming year into a full-fledged guide book, soon to be offered here for free download on Universe Today in the coming weeks. Hard to believe, we’ve been doing this look ahead in one form or another now since 2009.

This “blog post that takes six months to write” will be expanded into a full-fledged book. But the core idea is the same: the year in astronomy, distilled down into the very 101 best events worldwide. You will find the best occultations, bright comets, eclipses and much more. Each event will be interspersed with not only the ‘whens’ and ‘wheres,’ but fun facts, astronomical history, and heck, even a dash of astronomical poetry here and there.

It was our goal to take this beyond the realm of a simple almanac or Top 10 listicle, to something unique and special. Think of it as a cross between two classics we loved as a kid, Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar, done up in as guide to the coming year in chronological format. Both references still reside on our desk, even in this age of digitization.

And we’ve incorporated reader feedback from over the years to make this forthcoming guide something special. Events will be laid out in chronological order, along with a quick-list for reference at the end. Each event is listed as a one- or two-page standalone entry, ready to be individually printed off as needed. We will also include 10 feature stories and true tales of astronomy. Some of these were  culled from the Universe Today archives, while others are new astronomical tales written just for the guide.

Great American Eclipse
Don’t miss 2017’s only total solar eclipse, crossing the United States! Image credit: Michael Zeiler/The Great American Eclipse.

The Best of the Best

Here’s a preview of some of the highlights for 2017:

-Solar cycle #24 begins to ebb in 2017. Are we heading towards yet another profound solar minimum?

-Brilliant Venus reaches greatest elongation in January and rules the dusk sky.

-45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova passes 0.08 AU from Earth on February 11th, its closest passage for the remainder of the century.

-An annular solar eclipse spanning Africa and South America occurs on February 26th.

A sample occultation map from the book. Image credit: Occult 4.1.2.
A sample occultation map from the book. Image credit: Occult 4.1.2.

-A fine occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon on March 5th for North America… plus more occultations of the star worldwide during each lunation.

-A total solar eclipse spanning the contiguous United States on August 21st.

-A complex grouping of Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Moon in mid-September.

-Saturn’s rings at their widest for the decade.

Getting wider... the changing the of Saturn's rings. Image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes (@FailedProtostar).
Getting wider… the changing face of Saturn’s rings. Image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes (@FailedProtostar).

-A fine occultation of Regulus for North America on October 15th, with  occultations of the star by the Moon during every lunation for 2017.

-Asteroid 335 Roberta occults a +3rd magnitude star for northern Australia…

And that’s just for starters. Entries also cover greatest elongations for the inner planets and oppositions for the outer worlds, the very best asteroid occultations of bright stars, along with a brief look ahead at 2018.

Get ready for another great year of skywatching!

And as another teaser, here’s a link to a Google Calendar download of said events, complied by Chris Becke (@BeckePhysics). Thanks Chris!

Watch Asteroid 2016 VA Pass Through Earth’s Shadow

Holy low-flying space rocks, Batman.

Newly discovered asteroid 2016 VA snuck up on us last night, and crossed through the Earth’s shadow to boot.

Discovered just yesterday by the Mount Lemmon Sky Survey based outside of Tucson Arizona, 2016 VA passed just 58,600 miles (93,700 kilometers) from the surface of the Earth this morning at 00:42 Universal Time (UT). That’s a little over 20% of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and just over twice the distance to the ring of geosynchronous and geostationary satellites around the Earth.

This sort of close pass of a newly discovered asteroid happens a few times a year. What made 2016 VA’s passage unusual, however, was its transit through the Earth’s shadow. The discovery was announced yesterday by the Minor Planet Center, and astronomer Gianluca Masi soon realized that the Virtual Telescope Project had a unique opportunity to capture the asteroid on closest approach.

The passage of asteroid 2016 VA. Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.
Asteroid 2016 VA. Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

Gianluca Masi explained how the difficult capture was done:

“The image is a 60-second exposure, remotely taken with “Elena” (a PlaneWave 17” +Paramount ME+SBIG STL-6303E robotic unit) available at the Virtual Telescope project. The robotic mount tracked the extremely fast apparent motion of the asteroid, so stars are trailing. The asteroid is perfectly tracked; it is the sharp dot in the center, marked with two white segments. At imaging time, asteroid 2016 VA was at about 200,000 kilometers from us and approaching.”

Catching a fast-moving asteroid such as 2016 VA on closest approach isn’t easy. First off, there’s an amount of uncertainty surrounding the orbit of a newly discovered object until more observations can be made. 2016 VA passed close enough to the Earth that our planet’s gravity substantially altered the tiny asteroid’s future orbit. Also, a house-sized Earth-crosser like 2016 VA is really truckin’ across the sky on closest approach: 2016 VA was moving at 1500” a minute through Earth’s shadow – that’s 25” a second, fast enough to cross the apparent diameter of a Full Moon in just 72 seconds.

Masi also notes:

“During its flyby, asteroid 2016 VA was also eclipsed by the Earth. We covered the spectacular event, clearly capturing the penumbral effects. The movie is an amazing document showing the eclipse. Each frame comes from a 5-second integration.”

Watch as 2016 VA winks out as it hits Earth's shadow... Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.
Watch as 2016 VA winks out as it hits Earth’s shadow… Image credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

At an estimated 16 to 19 meters in size, 2016 VA shined at 13th magnitude as it crossed the southern hemisphere constellation of Sculptor on closest approach. It crossed through the Earth’s shadow for 11 minutes from 23:23 to 23:34 UT last night, just over an hour before closest approach. You can see the dimming effect of the Earth’s outer penumbral shadow in the video,  just before the asteroid strikes the inner dark umbra and emerges back into eternal sunshine once again. Sitting on 2016 VA, and observer would have seen a total solar eclipse, as the bulk of the Earth passed between the asteroid and the Sun in an event not witnessed by the tiny world for thousands of years.

Such transits of asteroid through the Earth’s shadow have been observed before: 2012 XE54 crossed through the Earth’s shadow a few years back, and 2008 TC3 crossed through the Earth’s shadow before striking the Nubian desert in the early morning hours of October 7th, 2008.

Satellites in geostationary orbit also pull a similar vanishing act right around either equinox as well.

The orbit of 2016 VA. Iimage credit: NASA/JPL.
The orbit of 2016 VA. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

2016 VA is also a similar size to another famous space rock: the 20 metre asteroid that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk the day after Valentine’s Day in 2013. 2016 VA gave us a miss, and won’t make another pass as close to the Earth again for this century.

To our knowledge, such a video capture of an asteroid crossing through Earth’s shadow is a first, or at least the first that we’ve seen circulated on ye ole Web.

The light curve of 2016 as it passed through the Earth's shadow. Image credit: Peter Birtwhistle, Great Shefford Observatory.
The light curve of 2016 as it passed through the Earth’s shadow. Image credit: Peter Birtwhistle, Great Shefford Observatory.

Congrats to the good folks at the Virtual Telescope Project for swinging into action so quickly, and providing us with an amazing view!

-Catch the closest Full Moon of the year (and for many years to come!) on November 14th live courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project.

The Lowdown on September’s Harvest Moon

The Full Moon of August 18, 2016 - the “Sturgeon Moon” - rising amid cloud over a wheatfield. This is a 5-exposure stack blended with luminosity masks, and shot with the Canon 60Da and 135mm telephoto.
The Full Moon of August 18, 2016 rises amid cloud over a wheat field. Friday night will see the rising of the annual Harvest Moon. Credit: Alan Dyer

It’s that wonderful time of year again when the Harvest Moon teeters on the horizon at sunset. You can watch the big orange globe rise on Friday (Sept. 16) from your home or favorite open vista just as soon as the Sun goes down. Despite being one of the most common sky events, a Full Moon rise still touches our hearts and minds every time. No matter how long I live, there will never be enough of them.

Friday night's Harvest Moon rises around sunset in the faint constellation Pisces the fish. Two fists above and left of the Moon, look for the four stars that outline the massive asterism of Pegasus the flying horse. Stellarium
Friday night’s Harvest Moon rises around sunset in the faint constellation Pisces the fish. Watch for it to come up almost due east around the time of sunset. Once the sky gets dark, look two fists above and left of the Moon for the four stars that outline the spacious asterism of Pegasus the flying horse. Stellarium

To see a moonrise, the most important information you need is the time the moon pops up for your city, which you’ll find by using this Moonrise and Moonset calculator. Once you know when our neighborly night light rises, pre-arrange a spot you can walk or drive to 10-15 minutes beforehand. The waiting is fun. Who will see it first? I’ll often expect to see the Moon at a certain point along the horizon then be surprised it’s over there.

A photographer finds just the right spot in Duluth along Lake Superior to photograph the Full Moon rise. The flattened shape of the Moon is caused by the layer of denser air closer to the horizon refracting or bending the bottom half of the Moon more strongly than the thinner air n
A photographer finds just the right spot in Duluth along Lake Superior to photograph a rising Full Moon. The flattened shape of the Moon is caused by the layer of denser air closer to the horizon refracting or bending the bottom half of the Moon more strongly than the thinner air along the top limb. In effect, refraction “lifts” the bottom half of the Moon upward into the top to give it a squashed appearance. Once the Moon rises high enough so we see it through much thinner (less dense) air, refraction becomes negligible and the Moon assumes its more familiar circular shape.  Credit: Bob King

Depending on how low to the horizon you can see, it’s possible, especially over water, to catch the first glimpse of lunar limb breaching the horizon. This still can be a tricky feat because the Moon is pale, and when it rises, shows little contrast against the still-bright sky. Since the Moon moves about one outstretched fist to the east (left in the northern hemisphere) each night, if you wait until one night after full phase, the Moon will rise in a much darker sky and appear in more dramatic contrast against the sky background.

As the Moon rises, we peer through hundreds of miles of the lower atmosphere, where the air is densest and dustiest. Aerosols scatter much of the blues and greens in moonlight away, leaving orange and red. Turbulence and varying air densities along the line of sight can create all manner of distortions of the lunar disk. This photo sequence showing an extraordinary moonset was taken from the shores of Garrison Lake in Port Orford, Oregon. The camera was facing west; looking across the lake, beyond the narrow foredune and out toward the Pacific Ocean. A very clear atmosphere enabled me to watch the Moon set all the way down to the horizon. The distortion that occurred as it descended was quite remarkable -- the Moon's shape was changing as fast as I could snap a picture.  Credit: Randy Scholten
This photo sequence showing an extraordinary moonset taken from the shores of Garrison Lake in Port Orford, Oregon. “The distortion that occurred as it descended was quite remarkable — the Moon’s shape was changing as fast as I could snap a picture,” said photographer Randy Scholten. As the Moon rises, we peer through hundreds of miles of the lower atmosphere, where the air is densest and dustiest. Aerosols scatter much of the blues and greens in moonlight away, leaving orange and red. Turbulence and varying air densities along the line of sight can create all manner of distortions of the lunar disk. Credit: Randy Scholten

Look closely at the rising Moon with both naked eye and binoculars and you might just see a bit of atmospheric sorcery at work. Refraction, illustrated the icy moonrise image above, is the big one. It creates the squashed Moon shape. But more subtle things are happening that depend on how turbulent or calm the air is along your line of sight to our satellite.

Clouds add their own beauty and mystery to the rising Moon. Credit: Bob King
Clouds add their own beauty and mystery to the rising Moon. Credit: Bob King

Rippling waves “sizzling” around the lunar circumference can be striking in binoculars though the effect is quite subtle with the naked eye. Much easier to see without any optical aid are the weird shapes the Moon can assume depending upon the state of the atmosphere. It can looked stretched out like a hot air balloon, choppy with a step-like outline around its bottom or top, square, split into two moons or even resemble a “mushroom cloud”.

If you make a point to watch moonrises regularly, you’ll become acquainted as much with Earth’s atmosphere as with the alien beauty of our sole satellite.

This Full Moon is special in at least two ways. First, it will undergo a penumbral eclipse for skywatchers across eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Observers there should watch a dusky gray shading over the upper or northern half of the Moon around the time of maximum eclipse. The link will take you to Dave Dickinson’s excellent article that appeared earlier here at Universe Today.

The angle of the moon’s path to the horizon makes all the difference in moonrise times. At full phase in spring, the path tilts steeply southward, delaying successive moonrises by over an hour. In September, the moon’s path is nearly parallel to the horizon with successive moonrises just 20+ minutes apart. Times are shown for the Duluth, Minn. region. Illustration: Bob King
The angle of the moon’s path to the horizon makes all the difference in moonrise times. At full phase in spring, the path tilts steeply southward, delaying successive moonrises by over an hour. In September, the moon’s path is nearly parallel to the horizon with successive moonrises just 20+ minutes apart. Times shown are for illustration only  — so you can see the dramatic different in rise times — and don’t refer necessarily to Friday night’s moonrise. Illustration: Bob King

In the northern hemisphere, September’s Full Moon is named the Harvest Moon, defined as the Full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox, which occurs at 9:21 a.m. CDT (14:21 UT) on the 22nd. Normally, the Moon rises on average about 50 minutes later each night as it moves eastward along its orbit. But at Harvest Moon, successive moonrises are separated by a half-hour or less as viewed from mid-northern latitudes. The short gap of time between between bright risings gave farmers in the days before electricity extra light to harvest their crops, hence the name.

Use your imagination and you can see any of several figures in the Full Moon composed of contrasting maria and highlands.
Use your imagination and you can see any of several figures in the Full Moon composed of contrasting maria and highlands.

Why the faster-than-usual moonrises? Every September, the Full Moon’s nightly travels occur at a shallow angle to the horizon; as the moon scoots eastward, it’s also moving northward this time of year as shown in the illustration above. The northern and eastward motions combine to make the Moon’s path nearly level to the horizon. For several nights in a row, it only takes a half-hour for the Earth’s rotation to carry the Moon up from below the horizon. In spring, the angle is steep because the Moon is then moving quickly southward along or near the ecliptic, the path it takes around the sky.  Rising times can exceed an hour.

As you gaze at the Moon over the next several nights, take in the contrast between its ancient crust, called the lunar highlands, and the darker seas (also known as maria, pronounced MAH-ree-uh). The crust appears white because it’s rich in calcium and aluminum, while the maria are slightly more recent basaltic lava flows rich in iron, which lends them a darker tone. Thanks to these two different types of terrain it’s easy to picture a male or female face or rabbit or anything your imagination desires.

Happy moongazing!

Our Guide to This Week’s ‘Ring of Fire’ Annular Eclipse

Ring of Fire

In Africa this week? The final solar eclipse of 2016 graces the continent on Thursday, September 1st. This eclipse is annular only, as the diminutive Moon fails to fully cover the disk of the Sun.

The 99.7 kilometer wide path crosses the African countries of Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar. The antumbra (the ‘ring of fire path of the shadow annulus as viewed from Earth) touches down in the southern Atlantic at 7:20 Universal Time (UT) on September 1st, before racing across Africa and departing our fair planet over the Indian Ocean over four hours later at 10:55 UT. Partial phases for the eclipse will be visible across the African continent as far north as southern Morocco, Egypt and the southwestern portion of the Arabian peninsula.

Path. Credit: Xavier Jubier.
The path of this week’s eclipse across Africa. Credit: Xavier Jubier.

Tales of the Saros

This eclipse is member 39 of 71 solar eclipses for saros 135, which runs from July 5th, 1331 to August 17th, 2593. This series finally produces its first total solar eclipse on March 29, 2359.

A daguerreotype of an annular eclipse from 1854, part of the same saros 154 cycle. Public domain image.
A daguerreotype of an annular eclipse from 1854, part of the same saros 154 cycle. Public domain image.

Annular eclipses occur when the Moon is too distant to cover the Sun as seen from the Earth. The Moon reaches apogee, or its most distant point from the Earth on September 6th, just five days after New and the September 1st eclipse.

How common (or rare) are solar eclipses, annular or total? It’s worth noting that as the 2017 total solar eclipse crossing the contiguous United States approaches, creationist websites are again promoting the idea that the supposed ‘perfection’ of solar eclipses is evidence for intelligent design. If solar eclipses are an example of a higher plan to the cosmos, they’re not a very good one… in fact, in our current epoch, partial eclipses, to include annulars, are much more prevalent. If, for example, the Moon’s orbit was aligned with the ecliptic, we’d see two eclipses – one lunar and and one solar – every month, a much rarer circumstance… a creator could have really used that to really get our attention. And Earth isn’t alone in hosting total solar eclipses: in our own solar system, you can make a brief visit to Jupiter’s large moons and also witness total solar eclipse perfection.

Unlike a total solar eclipse, proper eye protection must be worn throughout all stages of an annular eclipse. We witnessed annularity from the shores of Lake Erie back in 1994, and can attest that a few percent of the Sun is still surprisingly bright. The tireless purveyors of astronomy over at Astronomers Without Borders are working to distribute eclipse glasses to schools and students along the eclipse path.

An animation of Thursday's eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC.
An animation of Thursday’s eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC.

Are you in the path of this week’s annular eclipse? Let us know, and send those images in to Universe Today on Flickr.

We’ll most likely see more than a few images of the eclipse from space as well. And no, we’re not talking about the cheesy composite that now makes its rounds during every eclipse… solar observing satellites to include the European Space Agency’s Proba-2 and the joint JAXA/NASA Hinode mission typically capture several successive eclipses as they observe the Sun from their vantage point in low Earth orbit.

At this stage, we only know of one webcast set to broadcast the eclipse live: the venerable Slooh website.

Let us know if you’re planning on setting up an ad hoc live webcast of the eclipse, even from outside the path of annularity.

And of course, the big question on every eclipse-chaser’s mind is: when’s the next one? Well, we’ve got a subtle penumbral eclipse on September 16th, 2016, and then the next solar eclipse is another annular favoring Argentina, Chile and the west coast of southern Africa on February 26th, 2017.

Don’t miss this week’s annular solar eclipse, either live online or in person, for a chance to marvel at a celestial phenomenon we all share in time and space.

-Eclipse… science fiction? Yup… read Dave Dickinson’s eclipse-fueled tales Peak SeasonExeligmos, Shadowfall and The Syzygy Gambit.

Citizen Scientists Help Crack 300 Year Old Mystery Of Eclipse Wind

Being able to witness a solar eclipse is certainly a distinct experience. Even though the spectacle is mostly visual, there can be other effects as well. The air can cool, and observers may notice a decrease in wind speed or a change in wind direction. There might even be an eerie silence.

Experiences like this have been noted for centuries, and famed astronomer Edmund Halley wrote of the ‘Chill and Damp which attended the Darkness’ during an eclipse in 1715, which he noted caused ‘some sense of Horror’ among those who were witnessing the event.

While most people would describe an eclipse as ‘awe-inspiring’ (and not horrifying at all) the atmospheric changes noted by observers over the years has been called the “eclipse wind.” And now, based on the observations of over 4,500 citizen scientists in the UK during the partial eclipse on March 20, 2015, this effect is not just a figment of anyone’s imagination; it is a real phenomenon.

Partial phases of the solar eclipse on March 20, 2015 as seen from the United Kingdom. Credit and copyright: Sarah and Simon Fisher.
Partial phases of the solar eclipse today as seen from the United Kingdom. Credit and copyright: Sarah and Simon Fisher.

The National Eclipse Weather Experiment (NEWEx) was a UK-wide citizen science project for collecting atmospheric data during that eclipse. Members of the public – including about 200 schools – recorded weather changes such as air temperature, wind speed, wind direction and cloud cover every five minutes during the eclipse. That data, submitted online, was compared with official data from the UK’s Met office observations, the United Kingdom’s national weather service.

“The NEWEx was, as far as we know, a world first, in measuring and analyzing eclipse changes in the weather on a national scale, in close to real time, through engagement of a network of citizen scientists,” wrote researchers Luke Barnard, Giles Harrison, Suzanne Gray and Antonio Portas from the University of Reading, in one of a series of new papers about eclipse meteorology published this week.

The data revealed that not only did the atmosphere cool during the eclipse – which is not surprising since solar radiation is being blocked by the Moon – but the winds and cloud cover also decreased. The cumulative effect is real, not just anecdotal, the team said.

The Data

NEWEx collected 15,606 meteorological observations from 309 locations within the UK and from those observations the science team was able to derive estimates of the near-surface air temperature, cloudiness and near-surface wind speed fields across many UK sites. The data submitted by citizen scientists were combined with Met Office surface weather stations and a network of roadside weather sensors that monitor highway conditions. The combination of data helped unravel the centuries-old mystery of the eclipse wind.

Geographical distribution of participants in the NEWEx citizen science project during the March 20, 2015 solar eclipse in the UK, with designations between schools (yellow squares) and non-schools (pink dots). Credit: Antonio M. Portas, Luke Barnard, Chris Scott, R. Giles Harrison.
Geographical distribution of participants in the NEWEx citizen science project during the March 20, 2015 solar eclipse in the UK, with designations between schools (yellow squares) and non-schools (pink dots). Credit: Antonio M. Portas, Luke Barnard, Chris Scott, R. Giles Harrison.
From analysis of the data, they found that the wind change is caused by variations to the “boundary layer” – the area of air that usually separates high-level winds from those at the ground.

“There have been lots of theories about the eclipse wind over the years, but we think this is the most compelling explanation yet,” said Harrison in a press release from the University of Reading in the UK. “As the sun disappears behind the moon the ground suddenly cools, just like at sunset. This means warm air stops rising from the ground, causing a drop in wind speed and a shift in its direction, as the slowing of the air by the Earth’s surface changes.”

The measurements from citizen scientists clearly showed temperature drops and a decrease in clouds. The team did note that because of the low velocity of winds and some areas where cloud cover change was small, it was difficult for the participants to make some of the measurements. But the high level of participation across the UK provided enough data for the team to make their conclusions.

“Halley also relied on combining eclipse observations from amateur investigators across Britain. We have continued his approach,” Harrison said.

A total of 16 new papers and reports were published this week in a special ‘eclipse meteorology’ issue of the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. The special issue is published 301 years after Halley’s report of the eclipse in London in 1715 – and in exactly the same journal.

The team wrote that they hope a similar citizen science effort might take place in August 2017, when a total solar eclipse will be visible from North America, providing another opportunity to study eclipse-induced meteorology changes.
“NEWEx serves as a useful example of the strengths and challenges of using a citizen science approach to study eclipse-induced meteorological changes, and could provide a template for a similar study for the August 2017 eclipse,” the team said.

Sources: Paper: The National Eclipse Weather Experiment: an assessment of citizen scientist weather observations, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, University of Reading.

One Year to the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse


One. More. Year. Quick; where will you be this time next year on August 21st, 2017? We’re now just one year out this weekend from a fine total solar eclipse gracing the United States from coast to coast. If you think one year out is too early to start planning, well, umbraphiles (those who chase the shadow of the Moon worldwide) have been planning to catch this one now for over a decade.

The shadow of the March 9th, 2016 solar eclipse as seen from the Himawari-8 Earth-observing satellite. image credit: JAXA/JMA/Himawari/CIMSS
The shadow of the March 9th, 2016 solar eclipse (the dark spot on the right) as seen from the Himawari-8 Earth-observing satellite. Image credit: JAXA/JMA/Himawari/CIMSS.

Get set for the Great American Eclipse. The last time a total solar eclipse made landfall over a U.S. state was Hawaii on July 11th, 1991, and the path of totality hasn’t touched down over the contiguous ‘Lower 48’ United States since February 26th, 1979. And you have to go all the way back over nearly a century to June 8th, 1918 to find an eclipse that exclusively crossed the United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast.

The path of the 2017 total solar eclipse across the U.S. image credit and copyright: Michael Zeiler/The GreatAmercianEclipse
The path of the 2017 total solar eclipse across the U.S. Image credit and copyright: Michael Zeiler/The GreatAmercianEclipse

Totality for the August 21st, 2017 eclipse crosses over many major cities, including Columbia South Carolina, Nashville, St. Louis and Salem, Oregon. The inner shadow of the Moon touches on 15 states as it races across the U.S. in just over an hour and a half. The length of totality is about 2 minutes in duration as the shadow makes landfall near Lincoln City, Oregon, reaches a maximum duration of 2 minutes, 42 seconds very near Carbondale, Illinois, and shrinks back down to 2 minutes and 35 seconds as the shadow heads back out to sea over Charleston, South Carolina.

The eclipse will be a late morning affair in the northwest, occurring at high noon over western Nebraska, and early afternoon to the east. ‘Getting your ass to totality,’ is a must. “But I’ve seen a partial solar eclipse,” is a common refrain, “aren’t they all the same?”

An animation of the 2017 eclipse.
An animation of the 2017 eclipse.

Nope. We witnessed the May 10th, 1994 annular eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie, and can tell you that even less than 1% of the Sun’s intensity is still pretty bright, a steely blue luminosity equivalent to a cloudy day.

We crisscrossed the United States along the eclipse path back in 2014, chronicling preparations in towns such as Columbia and Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Last minute accommodation is already tough to come by, even one year out. Cabins in the Land Between the Lakes region near Paducah, Kentucky, for example, were booked full as soon as the August 21st date became available. Think Mardi Gras and DragonCon, rolled into one. Hopkinsville also has an annual Roswell-style UFO-fest on the same date, celebrating the 1955 Kelly-Hopkinsville UFO incident.

Will it be ‘umbraphiles versus aliens?’

Out west, enticing locales include the Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the northern edge of the Craters of the Moon National Monument site in Idaho. It’s also worth noting that the western United States is a better bet cloud cover-wise, as afternoon summer thundershowers tend to be the norm for the southeast during late August.

Millions live within an easy day drive of the eclipse path, and it happens during prime camping season, to boot. The annual Sturgess motorcycle rally held near Rapid City, South Dakota is just one week prior to totality, and bikers returning from the pilgrimage southward could easily stop to greet the Earth’s shadow on the road home.

2017 Eclipse Panorama from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo.

There’s been talk that Cosmoquest may mount an eclipse expedition based out of Nashville, Tennessee (more to come on that).

Maintaining mobility is the best bet. Our master plan is to return to the States a week or so prior, rent a camper van from Vegas, and head northward. Like millions of Americans, this will be our first total solar eclipse, and the event promises to spark a whole new generation of umbraphiles. And stick around just seven more years, and totality will again cross the United States on August 8th, 2024 from the southwest to the northeast. The Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky tri-state region sees this eclipse as well. This one is special for us, as it crosses over our hometown of Presque Isle, Maine. I remember looking up the next total solar eclipse over northern Maine as a kid, way back when, and figuring out just how old I would be. The top of Mount Katahdin and selected sites along the Maine Solar System model would all be choice locales to view this one. Check out this great old vid of the aforementioned 1979 eclipse over the U.S.:

We also plan on taking the veteran eclipse-chaser’s mantra of ‘experience your first eclipse; but photograph your second one.’ to heart. Lots of fascinating projects are afoot leading up to the 2017 total solar eclipse, including The Eclipse MegaMovie Project to produce a complete video documentary of the eclipse path, plans by a student group to fly and observe the eclipse from balloons during totality, proposals to replicate famous eclipse experiments and more. It’s also worth noting that the bright star Regulus will sit just one degree from the Sun during totality… perhaps someone will manage to measure its deflection via General Relativity in a manner similar to Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous 1919 observation?

Unlike the paths of most eclipses, which seem to have an affinity for wind-swept tundra or remote swaths of desert, this one is sure to draw in the ‘astronomy-curious’ and may just be the most witnessed total solar eclipse in history.

Here’s some eclipse tales and facts to ponder leading up to totality. If you caught the August 11th, 1999 eclipse across Europe, then you saw the last eclipse in the same saros series 145. If you caught the eclipse before that in the same series on July 31st, 1981 across northeast Asia, then you’ll complete a 54 year long triple-saros period after seeing next summer’s eclipse, known as an exeligmos. This cycle also brings the eclipse path very nearly back around to the same longitude.

Regulus near the  eclipsed Sun next August. Credit: Stellarium.

The Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon in diameter, but the Moon is 400 times closer. We’ve actually heard this fact tossed out as evidence for intelligent design, though it’s just a happy celestial circumstance of our present era. In fact, annular eclipses are now slightly more common than totals in our current epoch, and will continue to become more so as the Moon slowly recedes from the Earth. Just under a billion years ago, the very first annular eclipse of the Sun as seen from the Earth occurred, and 1.4 billion years hence, the Earth will witness one last brief total eclipse.

But you won’t have to wait that long. Don’t miss the greatest show in the universe next August!

-Check out Michael Zeiler’s (@EclipseMaps) 10-foot long strip map of the entire eclipse path.

-Eclipses, both lunar and solar have played a role in history as well.

-Curious about eclipses in time and space? Read our eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales, Exeligmos, The Syzygy Gambit and Shadowfall, with more to come!