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.

A Hybrid Solar Eclipse Seen From Earth… and Space

The final eclipse for 2013 was a grand event, witnessed across the Atlantic and the heart of Africa this past Sunday. Like so many other photographers along the North American east coast, we were at the ready to greet the partially eclipsed Sun at dawn. And as the shadow of the Moon touched down, teams on land, air and sea were ready to meet with the fleeting umbra as it raced eastward towards sunset over the Horn of Africa region.

But a fleet of spacecraft were also on hand to witness the rare spectacle as well. Turned earthward and sunward, these spacecraft documented not only the passage of the Moon’s shadow over the Earth, but recorded multiple partial solar eclipses from orbit as well.

The first view comes from the Roscosmos Electro-L satellite based in a geostationary orbit over the Indian Ocean:

Electro-L had captured such a view before, during the annular eclipse over Australia earlier this year in May. Roscosmos increased the frame capture rate of Electro-L to twice its usual speed for the sequence. As you watch the Earth pass from a waning gibbous to crescent phase, you can just see the umbra, or central shadow of the Moon, slide into view and come into contact with the sunset terminator over eastern Africa. You can also see the cloud cover that marks the dust storms that plagued eclipse-chasers based around the Lake Turkana region in Kenya.

One of the first public pictures of the umbra of the Moon as seen from space was taken from the Mir space station during a total solar eclipse in 1999. To our knowledge, such a feat has yet to be duplicated aboard the International Space Station. The phase angle of the ISS’s orbit during the eclipse was nearly perpendicular to the Sun-Moon-Earth syzygy, and unfavorable for this particular eclipse.

Thanks to the Russian journalist Vitaliy Egorov for bringing the Electro-L eclipse sequence to the attention of Universe Today!

Next up is a sequence of images from NASA’s Aqua satellite:

Sunday's eclipse and the Moon's umbra as seen from the Aqua satellite. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).
Sunday’s eclipse and the Moon’s umbra off of the west coast of Africa as seen from the Aqua satellite. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).

Launched in 2002, Aqua is part of the “A-train” (as in “Afternoon”) constellation of Earth-observing satellites. Perched in a low-Earth Sun-synchronous orbit, Aqua caught sight of the umbra of the Moon at around 14:45 UT on Sunday, November 3rd as it raced to make first landfall over the nation of Gabon and awaiting eclipse chasers.

Some Sun observing spacecraft caught sight of the eclipse as well. The European Space Agency’s Proba-2 nabbed three partial solar eclipses from its vantage point in low Earth orbit:

PROBA-2 used its SWAP imager to grab the sequences. Orbiting the Earth once every 99 minutes or 14.5 time a day, these “orbital eclipses” are quick, lasting about 10 minutes each in duration.

Finally, EUMETSAT’s MeteoSat-10 meteorological satellite based in a geostationary orbit over Africa captured an outstanding sequence, showing nearly the entire trek of the umbra across the entire path of the eclipse:

The sequence runs from 7:30 to 18:30 UT on November 3rd. Note how the video shows the shadow fade in and sharpen as the eclipse touches down off of the US East Coast and intensifies from an annular to total along the first 15 seconds of its track, only to speed up and flatten towards sunset over Africa. And all in six seconds!

And back here on Earth, we couldn’t resist stitching together the bounty from our own minor eclipse expedition for a stop-motion view of the partially eclipsed Sun rising over the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida:

We’d like to also mention a photo that isn’t a “solar eclipse seen from space…” Y’know the one, which shows the Earth, the Moon’s shadow, and a totally-eclipsed Sun, against a star dappled Milky Way. We won’t dignify it with a link. This has already been debunked by Bad Astronomer himself Phil Plait, but the bogus pic now seems to make its rounds across ye’ ole Web now during every eclipse. Seriously? Do we all crave “link juice” that bad? There are lots of real awesome eclipse photos out there, from Earth & beyond! Please, do your part to tell that well meaning friend/coworker/relative/stranger on Twitter that this “ultimate eclipse photo…” isn’t.

How rare are hybrid solar eclipses? Well, the next solar eclipse that is both annular and total along its track occurs over southeast Asia on April 20th, 2023. It’s interesting to note that this past weekend’s eclipse may have been the first sunrise solar eclipse over the VAB since it was built in 1966. Eclipses in the same 18 years and 11 days- long saros cycle repeat, but move about 120 degrees westward. Thus, follow an eclipse cycle through a “triple saros”— known as an “Exeligmos,” an ultimate scrabble word if you can land it on a triple word score! —and an eclipse’s geometry will roughly line back up over a 54 year 33 day long span. Saros 143 produced a an eclipse crossing a similar path on October 2nd, 1959 (before the VAB was built!) and will repeat its Atlantic sunrise performance on December 6th, 2067! Let’s see, by then I’ll be…

Watch Live: Sunday’s “Hybrid Solar Eclipse”

The chase is on. On Sunday, November 3rd, the shadow of the Moon will cross the Earth for one last time in 2013. We recently wrote about the prospects for viewing this “hybrid” annular-total solar eclipse as it crosses the Atlantic and central Africa. Viewers from northern South America across the U.S. Eastern Seaboard up into the Canadian Maritimes will also be treated to a brilliant rising partial eclipse over the Atlantic at sunrise. Tickets are already in hand for many, as umbraphiles wing their way (cue Indiana Jones music) to dusty and exotic far off locales to stand briefly in the shadow of our Moon…

But what if it’s cloudy?

Once the bane of eclipse-chasers, you can now thwart our sometimes murky atmosphere by catching the solar eclipse online.

I remember our first experience with eclipse-chasing on the internet, trying to catch an eclipse broadcast on ye ole dial up modem from an internet café (remember internet cafes?) way back in the late 90s. This was pre-You Tube, pre-UStream. Needless to say, the tenuous connection afforded nary a frozen glimpse of the partially eclipsed Sun, and crashed all together at the onset of totality.

Fast forward to 2013, when ginormous data packets routinely fly around the globe.

True, this eclipse presents a challenge, as it crosses some pretty wild and unconnected terrain. But one standby that we can expect is the good people at Slooh, who have dispatched a broadcast team to the African nations of Gabon and Kenya:

As of this writing, Slooh looks to be going live at around 11:45 UT on Sunday November 3rd. This is 6:45 AM EST, which takes into account our “falling back” one hour to UT -5 hours on Sunday morning. Astronomer Brian Cox will be broadcasting live from Kenya, and the broadcast starts just over two hours prior to the first landfall of totality at just before 14:00 UT. From Gabon, Maximum totality will be a brief 1 minute and 5 seconds, and will dwindle to an even briefer 14 seconds over Lake Turkana in Kenya before ending as a brilliant sunset eclipse over Somalia and Ethiopia. A backup broadcast of the partial phases of the eclipse is also planned from Slooh’s home base site in the Canary Islands.

Another fascinating potential broadcast may come our way from the BRCK organization basing their observations of the eclipse from the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya.  Billed as “Your Backup Generator for the Internet,” BRCK’s mission is to bring broadband access internet to people in remote regions of the world. This weekend’s eclipse certainly qualifies. As of writing this on Halloween, October 31st, the BRCK team had gone into the field to “stress test” their webcasting capability onsite; follow them on Twitter as @brcknet for the latest updates. As of yet, there’s no embed for the broadcast, though we’ll be sure to drop it in if it surfaces!

There’s also some interesting science afoot during this eclipse as well. A recent press release out from Williams College notes that Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy and chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Eclipses Jay Pasachoff will observe the eclipse, along with a student and tourist expedition from Gabon. A veteran eclipse chaser, Pasachoff will be working in concert with Dr. Vojtech Rusin of the Astronomical Institute of Slovakia, solar researchers Aris Voulgaris and Robert Lucas and William College students to study the ethereal solar corona.  Satellite-based coronagraphs, such as the one employed by SOHO, can create an “artificial eclipse” of the Sun to study the corona, but also face the challenge of scattered light via a phenomenon known as Fresnel-diffraction. Pasachoff and team hope to combine their observations with those being routinely carried out by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Royal Observatory in Belgium to characterize the solar corona and improve our understanding of the space weather environment. Pasachoff’s expedition is being assisted via support from the South African Astronomical Observatory, Nommo Astronomia, the Gabon Astronomy Society and the Gabon Space Agency. Veteran eclipse chaser and historian Michael Zeiler (@EclipseMaps) has also joined up with Pasachoff’s group in Gabon.

In space, the NASA/JAXA joint solar observing Hinode spacecraft and ESA’s Sun watching Proba-2 will also catch several partial eclipses from their respective perches in low Earth orbit. Expect to see these pics in the days following Sunday’s eclipse.

We’ll be dropping in more broadcasts as they come to our attention this weekend here at Universe Today. Planning an ad-hoc webcast of the eclipse? Let us know in the comments below! Even if it’s just a brief view of the rising partially eclipsed Sun from the beach, its worth the effort. Just remember that you’ll need a fairly long focal length (in the range of 200mm or longer) and a proper solar filter for the Sun to appear like anything more than a washed out dot in the broadcast. And always run a test of your rig beforehand!

Good luck, happy eclipse chasing, and don’t forget to send those eclipse pics to Universe Today!