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.

penumbral
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.

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.

path
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.

What is a Total Eclipse?

Imagine if you will, that you are a human being living in prehistoric times. You look up at the sky and see the Sun slowly being blocked out,  becoming a ominous black sphere that glows around the edges. Could you really be faulted for thinking that this was some sort of supernatural event, or that the end of the world was nigh?

Of course not. Which is why for thousands of years, human beings believed that solar eclipses were just that – a sign of death or a bad omen. But in fact, an eclipse is merely what happens when one stellar object passes in front of another and obscures it. In astronomy, this happens all the time; and between the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth, total eclipses have been witnessed countless times throughout history.

Definition:

The general term for when one body passes in front of another in a solar system is transit. This term accurately describes how, depending on your vantage point, stellar bodies pass in front of each other on a regular basis, thus causing the reflected light from that body to be temporarily obscured.

However, when we are talking about how the Moon can pass between the Earth and the Sun, and how the Earth can pass between the Sun and the Moon, we use the term eclipse. This is also known as a syzygy, an astronomical term derived from ancient Greek (meaning “yoked together”) that describes a straight-line configuration between three celestial bodies.

Total Solar Eclipse:

When the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, and the Moon fully occults (blocks) the Sun, it is known as the solar eclipse. The type of solar eclipse – total or partial – depends on the distance of the Moon from the Earth during the event.

During an eclipse of the Sun, only a thin path on the surface of the Earth is actually able to experience a total eclipse – which is called the path of totality. People on either side of that path see a partial eclipse, where the Sun is only partly obscured by the Moon, relative to those who are standing in the center and witnessing the maximum point of eclipse.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Earth intersects the Moon’s umbra – i.e. the innermost and darkest part of its shadow. These are relatively brief events, generally lasting only a few minutes, and can only be viewed along a relatively narrow track (up to 250 km wide). The region where a partial eclipse can be observed is much larger.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/auraluu/7085004603/in/photolist-bN5v2M-dufbuU-pzUHQi-nZQkxQ-6KdhJ7-9TLjD4-dtvX13-pidJNx-dtvUxY-dxAA8r-n8uzjn-hx1CzU-du9zKv-c4eHhw-F1szSh-hx2yTc-dv7Y5W-dubgHK-du9zB6-FvPkNQ-drNyGZ-Eg3Msj-F4kfHb-zpuHFU-yUCmvN-yuSXP5-DqsCRp-zfU1bR-zbbFV9-FrtBYE-hdVRQm-rkh8fd-dufbHG-6KGxbK-dufbmf-du9zQe-ryZmAb-FtsHpn-EAUwcK-Ct6Fma-6KLF1b-FiThUB-EEgQjh-E8uHFM-yUC28b-rqtfQ3-yTR8jt-tsa14t-rHcxrz-rXwEhJ
Totality! The view of the last total solar eclipse to cross a U.S. state (Hawaii) back in 1991. Credit and copyright: A. Nartist (shot from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California).

During a solar eclipse, the Moon can sometimes perfectly cover the Sun because its size is nearly the same as the Sun’s when viewed from the Earth. This, of course, is an illusion brought on by the fact that the Moon is much closer to us than the Sun.

And since it is closer, it can block the light from the Sun and cast a shadow on the surface of the Earth. If you’re standing within that shadow, the Sun and the Moon appear to line up perfectly, so that the Moon is completely darkened.

After a solar eclipse reaches totality, the Moon will continue to move past the Sun, obscuring smaller and smaller portions of it and allowing more and more light to pass.

Total Lunar Eclipse:

A total eclipse of the Moon is a different story. In this situation, the entire Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, darkening it fully. A partial lunar eclipse occurs when the shadow of the Earth doesn’t fully cover the Moon, so only part of the Moon is darkened.

The phases of a total lunar eclipse. Saturday's eclipse will see the briefest totality in a century. Credit: Keith Burns / NASA
The phases of a total lunar eclipse. Saturday’s eclipse will see the briefest totality in a century. Credit: Keith Burns / NASA

Unlike a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse can be observed from nearly anywhere in an entire hemisphere. In other words, observers all across planet Earth can see this darkening and it appears the same to all. For this reason, total lunar eclipses are much more common and easier to observe from a given location. A lunar eclipse also lasts longer, taking several hours to complete, with totality itself usually averaging anywhere from about 30 minutes to over an hour.

There are three types of lunar eclipses. There’s a penumbral eclipse, when the Moon crosses only the Earth’s penumbra (the region in which only a portion of light is obscured); followed by a partial, when the Moon crosses partially into the Earth’s umbra (where the light is completely blocked).

Last, there is a total eclipse, when the Moon crosses entirely into the Earth’s umbra. A total lunar eclipse involves the Moon passing through all three phases, then gradually passing out of the Earth’s shadow and becoming bright again. Even during a total lunar eclipse, however, the Moon is not completely dark.

Sunlight is still refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere and enters the umbra to provide faint illumination. Similar to what happens during a sunset, the atmosphere scatters shorter wavelength light, causing it to take on a red hue. This is where the phrase ‘Blood Moon‘ comes from.

Since the Moon orbits the Earth, you would expect to see an eclipse of the Sun and the Moon once a lunar month. However, this does not happen simply because the Moon’s orbit isn’t lined up with the Sun. In fact, the Moon’s orbit is tilted by a few degrees – 1.543º between the angle of the ecliptic and the lunar equator, to be exact.

This means that three objects only have the opportunity to line up and cause an eclipse a few times a year. It’s possible for a total of 7 solar and lunar eclipses every year, but that only happens a few times every century.

Other Types of Eclipses:

The term eclipse is most often used to describe a conjunction between the Earth, Sun and Moon. However, it can also refer to such events beyond the Earth–Moon system. For example, a planet moving into the shadow of one of its moons, a moon passing into the shadow of its host planet, or a moon passing into the shadow of another moon.

Mosaic of Saturn seen in eclipse in September 2006. Earth is the bright dot just inside the F ring at upper left. (CICLOPS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Mosaic of Saturn seen in eclipse in September 2006. Earth is the bright dot just inside the F ring at upper left. (CICLOPS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

For instance, during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969, the crew was able to observe the Sun being eclipsed by the Earth. In 2006, during its mission to study Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft was able to capture the image above, which shows the gas giant transiting between the probe and the Sun.

In July of 2015, when the New Horizons mission passed through the shadow of Pluto, it was able to capture a stunning image of the dwarf planet eclipsing the Sun. The image was taken at a distance of about 2 million km (1.25 million miles), which provided the necessary vantage point to see the disc of the Sun become fully obscured.

On top of that, many other bodies in the Solar System can experience eclipses as well. These include the four gas giants, all of which have major moons that periodically transit between the planet and either Earth-based or space-based observatories.

The most impressive and common of these involve Jupiter and its four largest moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto). Given the size and low axial tilt of these moons, they often experience eclipses with Jupiter as a result of transits, relative to our instruments.

An enviable view, of the most distant eclipse seen yet, as New Horizons flies through the shadow of Pluto. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
An enviable view, of the most distant eclipse seen yet, as New Horizons flies through the shadow of Pluto. Credit: NASA/JPL.

A well-known example occurred in April of 2014, when the Hubble Space Telescope caught an image of Ganymede passing in front at of Jupiter. At the time the image was taken, Ganymede was casting its shadow within Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which lent the planet a cyclops-like appearance (see below).

The other three gas giants are known to experiences eclipses as well. However, these only occur at certain periods the planet’s orbit of the Sun, due to their higher inclination between the orbits of their moons and the orbital plane of the planets. For instance, Saturn’s largest moon Titan has been known to only occult the ringed gas giant once about every 15 years.

Pluto has also been known to experience eclipses with is largest moon (and co-orbiting body) Charon. However, in all of these cases, the eclipses are never total, as they do not have the size to obscure the much larger gas giant. Instead, the passage of the moons in front of the larger celestial bodies either cast small shadows on the cloud tops of the gas giants, or lead to an annular eclipse at most.

Similarly, on Mars, only partial solar eclipses are ever possible. This is because Phobos or Deimos are not large enough (or distant enough in their orbits) to cover the Sun’s disc, as seen from the surface of the planet. Phobos and Deimos have also been known to experience lunar eclipses as they slip into the shadow of Mars.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot and Ganymede's Shadow. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and Ganymede’s Shadow. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

Martian eclipses have been photographed numerous times from both the surface and from orbit. For example, in 2010, the Spirit rover captured images of a Martian lunar eclipse as Phobos, the larger of the two martian moons, was photographed while slipping into the shadow of Mars.

Also, between Nov. 4 and Nov. 5, 2010, the Opportunity rover captured several images (later turned into movies) of a Martian sunset. In the course of imaging the Sun for a total of 17 minutes, Opportunity captured stills of the Sun experiencing a solar eclipse. And on September 13th, 2012 – during the 37th day of its mission (Sol 27) – the Curiosity rover captured an image of Phobos transiting the Sun.

As far as astronomical events go, total eclipses (Lunar and Solar) are not uncommon occurrences. If you ever want to witness a one, all you need to do is keep track of when one will be visible from your part of the world. Some good resources for this are NASA’s Eclipse Website and timeanddate.com.

Or, if you’re the really adventurous type, you can find out where on Earth the next path of totality is going to be, and then book a vacation to go there. Get to the right spot at the right time, and you should be getting the view of a lifetime!

We have written many articles about the eclipse for Universe Today. Here’s a list of articles about specific times when a total Lunar Eclipse took place, and here’s a list of Solar Eclipse articles. And be sure to check out this article and video of an Annular Eclipse.

If you’d like more info about the Eclipse, check out NASA Homepage, and here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Simulator.

We’ve also recorded related episodes of Astronomy Cast about Eclipses. Listen here, Episode 160: Eclipses.

Sources:

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.

Amazing Images of Today’s Solar Eclipse from Earth and Space

The images are pouring in. While most of North America slept this AM, Australians were treated to the very first solar eclipse of 2014 earlier today. And while this particular eclipse was a partial one only from the Australian continent, it still offered observers a fine view of an often elusive natural spectacle.

Michael Drew
The partial eclipse as seen from Adelaide. Credit: Michael Drew (@MichaelDrew1234)

Although rain and clouds frustrated attempts to view the eclipse from much of southern Australia, clouds parted long enough in Queensland to the east and areas around Perth to the west to offer observers a fine view. Many eclipse watchers on the Australian east coast had the additional bonus of catching the setting Sun during the eclipse.

Proba-2
A quick screen shot from ESA’s Proba-2 spacecraft during one of the three passes of the solar eclipse. Credit: ESA/Proba-2.

We wrote about the prospects for catching this bizarre eclipse previously. The eclipse was a rare, non-central annular with one limit only, meaning the antumbra or inner core of the Moon’s shadow just grazed the edge of the planet over Antarctica. We haven’t yet heard if anyone witnessed it from the southern polar continent, though two year round research stations were located near the path of annularity. The European Space Agency operates Concordia Station nearby as part of its Human Spaceflight Activities program and they were aware of the upcoming event. We’ll keep you updated if reports or images surface!

David Herne
The eclipse seen through clouds. Photographer David Herne also noted that while he used his D3100 DSLR for the shot, his homemade pinhole camera offered fine views as well! Credit: David Herne(@AunaEridu)/Perth Western Australia.

As predicted, another solar observing sentinel in low Earth orbit did indeed witness the eclipse. ESA’s Proba-2 spacecraft caught the eclipse on three passes in this amazing raw animation from its SWAP-2 camera. The final third pass goes by extremely quick –these are measured in minutes from Proba-2’s swift vantage point – but the Sun looks well nigh to greater than 95% eclipsed by the Moon as it flies by.

Silveryway
The partial solar eclipse as seen from Adelaide, Australia. Credit: Silveryway.

There’s no word as of yet if the joint NASA/JAXA mission Hinode caught the eclipse as well, but we’ll keep you posted!

UPDATE: Courtesy of the European Space Agency and the Royal Observatory of Belgium, we now give you the full YouTube timelapse of the eclipse courtesy of Proba-2:

You’ll note that Proba-2 caught the partial phases on four separate passes… we also checked the sequence frame by frame, and although it looks like Proba-2 “may” have seen an annular – or even total – eclipse from space, it looks like it did so between captures!

This eclipse is one of two solar eclipses and four eclipses total for 2014. An interesting discussion occurred leading up to this eclipse as to the minimum number of eclipses that can occur in a year, which is four. If, however, you exclude faint lunar penumbrals, that number does indeed drop to two, both of which must be solar, which occurs in 2016. This also sparked a lively debate as to the naming of such a year on Twitter, with everything from a “Dwarf Eclipse Year” to “Nano Eclipse Cycle” and “Spurious Eclipse Year” being proposed. We liked the suitably esoteric and ready tweet-able term “declipsy” ourselves… thanks for the proposals and the lively discussion!

Virtual Telescope
Cue Jaws music… a “shark fin” sunset eclipse. Credit: Geoffrey Wyatt/The Virtual Telescope Project.
The partially-eclipsed Sun sinks into the west as seen from Brisbane, Australia on April 29, 2014. Credit and copyright: Teale Britstra.
The partially-eclipsed Sun sinks into the west as seen from Brisbane, Australia on April 29, 2014. Credit and copyright: Teale Britstra.
Partial solar eclipse in Adelaide, South Australia on April 29, 2014. Credit and copyright: Silveryway on Flickr.
Partial solar eclipse in Adelaide, South Australia on April 29, 2014. Credit and copyright: Silveryway on Flickr.

Thanks also to all who sent in pics. We’ll be updating this post as more come in… and although eclipse season 1 of 2 may be over for now, 2014 still has another total lunar eclipse and a good partial solar in October, both visible from North America.

…And we’re only three years out and have just two more total solar eclipses to go until the historic total solar eclipse of August 21st, 2017…

Let the countdown begin!

UPDATE: Missed out on the solar eclipse today? Hey so did we, it happens to the best of us… luckily, YOU can now relive the all of the excitement of the eclipse courtesy of the folks from the Virtual Telescope Project in YouTube Splendor:

And finally: got pics of the partial solar eclipse that you took today and you want to share with the world? Put ’em up on Universe Today’s Flickr community and let us know!

Weekly Space Hangout – April 25, 2014: Asteroids, ISS Repairs & an Annular Eclipse

Host: Fraser Cain
Guests: Morgan Rehnberg, Brian Koberlein, David Dickinson, Jason Major

This Week’s Stories:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter):
EVA
Cosmos
SpaceX announcements

Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein, briankoberlein.com):
Meteors are not more likely to hit Earth

Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz, www.astroguyz.com):
Saturn at Opposition
Bizarre Annular Eclipse

Jason Major (@JPMajor, LightsInTheDark.com):
B612 Foundation asteroid announcement

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

Our Guide to the Bizarre April 29th Solar Eclipse

Will anyone see next week’s solar eclipse? On April 29th, an annular solar eclipse occurs over a small D-shaped 500 kilometre wide region of Antarctica. This will be the second eclipse for 2014 — the first was the April 15th total lunar eclipse — and the first solar eclipse of the year, marking the end of the first eclipse season. 2014 has the minimum number of eclipses possible in one year, with four: two partial solars and two total lunars. This month’s solar eclipse is also a rarity in that it’s a non-central eclipse with one limit. That is, the center of the Moon’s shadow — known as the antumbra during an annular eclipse — will juuuust miss the Earth and instead pass scant kilometres above the Antarctic continent.

The "footprint" of the April 29th solar eclipse. Credit:
The “footprint” of the April 29th solar eclipse. Credit: Eclipse predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC.

A solar eclipse is termed “non-central with one limit” when the center of the Moon’s umbra or antumbra just misses the Earth and grazes it on one edge. Jean Meeus and Fred Espenak note that out of 3,956 annular eclipses occurring from 2000 BCE to 3000 AD, only 68 (1.7%) are of the non-central variety. An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon is too distant to cover the disk of the Sun, resulting in a bright “annulus” or “ring-of-fire” eclipse. A fine example of just such an eclipse occurred over Australia last year on May 10th, 2013. An annular eclipse crossed the United States on May 10th, 1994 and will next be seen from the continental U.S. on October 14th 2023. But of course, we’ll see an end the “total solar eclipse drought” long before that, when a total solar eclipse crosses the U.S. on August 21st, 2017!

An animated .gif of the April 29th eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/A.T. Sinclair.
An animated .gif of the April 29th eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/A.T. Sinclair.

The “centrality” of a solar eclipse or how close a solar eclipse comes to crossing the central disk of the Earth is defined as its “gamma,” with 0 being a central eclipse, and 1 as the center of the Moon’s shadow passing 1 Earth radii away from central. All exclusively partial eclipses have a gamma greater than 1. The April 29th eclipse is also unique in that its gamma is very nearly 1.000… in fact, combing the 5,000 year catalog of eclipses reveals that no solar eclipse from a period of 2000 B.C. to 3000 A.D. comes closer to this value. The solar eclipses of October 3rd, 2043 and March 18th, 1950 are, however very similar in their geometry. Guy Ottewell notes in his 2014 Astronomical Calendar that the eclipses of August 29th, 1486 and January 8th, 2141 also come close to a gamma of 1.000. On the other end of the scale, the solar eclipse of July 11th 1991 had a gamma of nearly zero. This eclipse is part of saros series 148 and is member 21 of 75. This series began in 1653 and plays out until 2987 AD. This saros will also produce one more annular eclipse on May 9th 2032 before transitioning to a hybrid and then producing its first total solar eclipse on May 31st, 2068. But enough eclipse-geekery. Do not despair, as several southern Indian Ocean islands and all of Australia will still witness a fine partial solar eclipse from this event. Antarctica has the best circumstances as the Sun brushes the horizon, but again, the tiny sliver of “annularity” touches down over an uninhabited area between the Dumont d’Urville and Concordia  stations currently occupied by France… and it just misses both! And remember, its astronomical fall headed towards winter “down under,” another strike against anyone witnessing it from the polar continent. A scattering of islands in the southern Indian Ocean will see a 55% eclipsed Sun. Circumstances for Australia are slightly better, with Perth seeing a 55% eclipsed Sun and Sydney seeing a 50% partial eclipse.

The view of the eclipse from multiple locations across the Australian continent at 7:00 UT on April 29th. Created by the author using Stellarium.
The view of the eclipse from multiple locations across the Australian continent at 7:00 UT on April 29th. Created by the author using Stellarium.

Darwin,  Bali Indonesia and surrounding islands will see the Moon just nick the Sun and take a less than 20% “bite” out of it. Observers in Sydney and eastern Australia also take note: the eclipse occurs low to the horizon to the west at sunset, and will offer photographers the opportunity to grab the eclipse with foreground objects. Viewing a partial solar eclipse requires proper eye protection throughout all phases. The safest method to view a partial solar eclipse is via projection, and this can be done using a telescope (note that Schmidt-Cassegrain scopes are bad choice for this method, as they can heat up quickly!) or nothing more sophisticated than a spaghetti strainer to create hundreds of little “pinhole projectors.”

A simulation of the view that no one will see: the annular eclipse one kilometre above latitude 71S longitude 131E above the Antarctic. Created using Stellarium.
A simulation of the view that no one will see: the annular eclipse as seen hovering one kilometre above the Antarctic at latitude 71S longitude 131E . Created using Stellarium.

And although no human eyes may witness the annular portion of this eclipse, some orbiting automated ones just might. We ran some simulations using updated elements, and the European Space Agency’s Sun observing Proba-2 and the joint NASA/JAXA Hinode mission might just “thread the keyhole” and will witness a brief central eclipse for a few seconds on April 29th: And though there’ll be few webcasts of this remote eclipse, the ever-dependable Slooh is expected to carry the eclipse on April 29th. Planning an ad hoc broadcast of the eclipse? Let us know! As the eclipse draws near, we’ll be looking at the prospects for ISS transits and more. Follow us as @Astroguyz as we look at these and other possibilities and tell our usual “tales of the saros”. And although this event marks the end of eclipse season, its only one of two such spans for 2014… tune in this October, when North America will be treated to another total lunar eclipse on the 8th and a partial solar eclipse on the 23rd… more to come! Send in those eclipse pics to the Universe Today Flickr community… you just might find yourself featured in this space!

Rare ‘Hybrid’ Solar Eclipse on November 3, 2013: How to See It

It’s almost upon us. The final eclipse of 2013 occurs this coming weekend on Sunday, November 3rd. This will be the fifth eclipse overall, and the second solar eclipse of 2013. This will also be the only eclipse this year that features a glimpse of totality.

This eclipse is of the rare hybrid variety— that is, it will be an annular eclipse along the very first 15 seconds of its track before transitioning to a total as the Moon’s shadow sweeps just close enough to the Earth to cover the disk of the Sun along the remainder of its track.

An animation of the path of the November 3rd hybrid solar eclipse. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center).
An animation of the path of the November 3rd hybrid solar eclipse. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center).

How rare are hybrid solar eclipse? Of the 11,898 solar eclipses listed over a 5,000 year span from 1999 BC to 3000 AD in Fred Espenak’s Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses, only 569, or 4.8% are hybrids.

Who can see this eclipse?

People from northern South America, across the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and up through the Canadian Maritimes will see a brief partial solar eclipse finishing up around 30 minutes after local sunrise. The brief annular “ring of fire” portion of the eclipse begins at sunrise just ~1,000 kilometres east of Jacksonville, Florida, as it races eastward across the Atlantic. See our timeline, below.

Eclipse prospects for the US East Coast. (Courtesy of Michael Zeiler @EclipseMaps)
Eclipse prospects for the US East Coast. (Courtesy of Michael Zeiler @EclipseMaps)

Nearly all of Africa and the southern Mediterranean region including Spain will see partial phases of the eclipse, while greatest totality occurs just off of the coast of Liberia and heads for first landfall on the African continent over Wonga Wongue Reserve in Gabon. At this point, the duration of totality will already have shrunk back down to 1 minute and 7 seconds. The shadow of the Moon will then cross central Africa, headed for a short but brilliant sunset total eclipse over Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

The global path of this weekends eclipse-click to enlarge. (Credit: Michael Zeiler, @EclipseMaps).
The global path of this weekends eclipse-click to enlarge. (Credit: Michael Zeiler, @EclipseMaps).

This particular eclipse part of saros series 143 and is member 23 of the 72 eclipses in the cycle. The first eclipse in this saros occurred on March 7th, 1617, and the last one will occur on April 23rd, 2897.

Saros 143 also has a checkered place in  eclipse history. The last eclipse in this series crossed south eastern Asia on October 24th, 1995.

The first detailed picture of a solar eclipse was also taken of a saros 143 member on July 28, 1851. And one saros later, a total solar eclipse on August 7th, 1869 may have saved the butt of astronomer and explorer George Davidson while traversing the wilds of Alaska. And one more saros period later,  Dmitri Mendeleev (he of the modern periodic table) observed the total solar eclipse of August 19th, 1887 from a balloon.

A daguerreotype image of the 1851 eclipse captured by Berkowski of the  Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Prussia. (Public domain image).
A daguerreotype image of the 1851 eclipse captured by Berkowski of the Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Prussia. (Public domain image).

We’ve compiled a brief worldwide timeline for the November 3rd hybrid eclipse. Keep in mind, the shift back off of Daylight Saving Time occurs on the same morning as the eclipse for North America, putting the U.S. East Coast  once again back to -5 hours off of Universal Time (UT):

10:04 UT: The partial phases of the eclipse begin.

11:05:17 UT: annular phases of the eclipse begin.

11:05:36 UT: The eclipse transitions from an annular to a total along its track.

12:46: The point of greatest eclipse, occurring off of the SW coast of Liberia along the coast of Africa. The path will be 57 kilometres wide at this point with a maximum duration for totality at 1 minute & 40 seconds.

14:27 UT: The total phases of the eclipse end.

15:28 UT: Partial phases end.

Remember that solar safety is paramount while observing an eclipse during all partial phases. This is especially critical, as millions of viewers along the U.S. East Coast are poised to catch the eclipse at sunrise over the Atlantic on Sunday. Use only glasses designed specifically for eclipse viewing or welder’s glass #14. One project headed by Astronomers Without Borders is also working to provide eclipse glasses to schools in Africa.

Students in Tanzania demonstrating proper eclipse viewing safety. (Credit: Astronomers Without Borders).
Students in Tanzania demonstrating proper eclipse viewing safety. (Credit: Astronomers Without Borders).

Projecting the Sun onto a wall or a piece of paper is also a safe method to observe the eclipse. Construction of a Sun Gun, a pinhole projector, or even using a spaghetti strainer or colander to project the partially eclipsed sun are all fun projects to try.

Shooting pictures of the rising eclipse is also possible using a DSLR. To capture the disk of the Sun plus an outline of the foreground, you’ll want to use a combination of low ISO 100 and a fast shutter speed (1/4000 or faster) and a zoom lens of at least 200mm or greater. Keep in mind, DO NOT look at the Sun through the camera’s view finder— simply set the focus to infinity and aim via projection. It’s worth practicing your technique a morning or two prior to the main event!

As the partial phase of the eclipse progresses, keep an eye out for “tiny crescents” that may litter the ground. These are caused by gaps in things such as leaves, latticework, etc that may act as natural “pinhole projectors”. Those lucky enough to stand in the path of totality may snare a look at shadow bands sweeping across the landscape as totality approaches, as well as catch a brief glimpse of Baily’s Beads and the pearly white corona of the Sun.

Totality will last less than a minute across most of central Africa, giving viewers a very hurried view before partial phases commence once more. Venus will be easily visible at magnitude -4.4 just 47 degrees east of the Sun. Unfortunately, prospects aren’t great for air or seaborne viewers in the mid-Atlantic to catch sight of comet ISON during the frenzied moments of totality, which will sit 50 degrees from the Sun between magnitude +7 & +8.

The sky over Gabon during mid-eclipse. (Created by the author using Starry Nite).
The sky over Gabon during mid-eclipse. (Created by the author using Starry Nite).

Weather prospects are an all-important consideration when planning for an eclipse. Jay Anderson maintains an outstanding site with projections tailor-made for each eclipse. For the U.S. East Coast, clear skies right down to the crucial eastern horizon will be key!

A recent surge in piracy off of the West Coast of Africa may also factor into travel considerations for eclipse chasers. You can actually monitor such activities on the high seas now in near real time. Perhaps one could take a page from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and impress any would-be-brigands with the glory of an impending solar eclipse…

Unfortunately, the International Space Station will have an orbit nearly perpendicular to the Earth-Moon-Sun syzygy, and won’t lend itself to any great prospects of a transit during the partial phases of the eclipse. ESA’s Proba-2 and JAXA’s Hinode will, however, see several partial eclipses from orbit:

Sunspot activity has also been on the upswing as of late, making for a photogenic Sun heading into the partial phases of the eclipse. A well-placed, naked eye Coronal Mass Ejection on the solar limb also isn’t out of the question. Eclipse historian and expert Michael Zeiler notes that a CME last occurred during a total solar eclipse way back in 1860.

Sunspot activity as of October 28th... will it stay active until this weekend's eclipse? (Photo by author).
Sunspot activity as of October 28th… will it stay active until this weekend’s eclipse? (Photo by author).

Totality for this eclipse passes over some wild and largely wifi free areas; few plans to broadcast the eclipse live have surfaced thus far.

Slooh plans a broadcast, as did a proposed Indiegogo project whose current status is unclear. BRCK also plans to broadcast the eclipse live from the shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya.  Got plans to webcast even the partial phases of the eclipse? Let us know!

And speaking of eclipse chasing, we plan on heading to the Florida Space Coast Sunday morning at o’dark thirty to nab the partial sunrise eclipse over the Atlantic.

And as always, the question posed immediately after totality is: when’s the next one? Well, the next annular eclipse graces Australia on April 29th, 2014. The U.S. will also see a partial solar eclipse on October 23rd next year… but totality will not touch the surface of our fair planet until a high Arctic eclipse on March 20th, 2015.

Good luck, clear skies, and safe journeys to all who are chasing after this one near and far, and don’t forget to post those pics to Universe Today’s Flickr page!

-See more of Michael Zeiler’s work at Eclipse Maps.

-Simulations were created using Starry Night Education Software.

Curiosity Spies a Martian Annular Eclipse

It’s always interesting to consider the astronomical goings-on that occur under alien skies.

On August 17th, Curiosity wowed us once again, catching the above sequence of images of the Martian moon Phobos transiting the Sun.

Such phenomena have been captured by the Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit rovers before, as the twin Martian moons of Deimos & Phobos cross the face of the Sun. But these recent images taken by Curiosity’s right Mastcam pair are some of the sharpest yet.

Orbiting only an average of 6,000 kilometres above the surface of Mars, Phobos is the closest to its primary of any moon in the solar system. It appears about 11 arc minutes in size when directly overhead, about 3 times smaller than our own Moon does from the Earth.

“This event occurred near noon at Curiosity’s location, which put Phobos at its closest point to the rover, appearing larger against the Sun than it would at other times of the day,” Said co-investigator Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University in a recent press release. “This is the closest to a total eclipse that you can have on Mars.”

Phobos is 40% more distant from an observer standing on the surface of Mars when it is rising above the local horizon than when it is overhead. The Sun is about 20’ arc minutes across as seen from Mars, 66% of its diameter as seen from the Earth.

The sequence above spans only six seconds in duration. You would easily note the apparent motion of Phobos as it drifted by! Also, since Phobos orbits Mars once every 7.7 hours, it actually rises in the west and sets in the east. The Martian day is over three times this span, at 24.6 hours long. Deimos has a more sedate orbit of 30.4 hours in duration.

The twin Moons of Deimos and Phobos were discovered this month back during the opposition of 1877 by Asaph Hall using the United States Naval Observatory’s newly installed 65 centimetre refractor. The moons are just within the grasp of eagle-eyed amateurs near opposition. You’ve got another opportunity to cross these elusive moons off of your life list coming up in the Spring of 2014.

image_preview
The telescope that was used to discover the moons of Mars. (Credit: The United States Naval Observatory).

It’s especially captivating that you can make out the irregular “potato shape” of Phobos in the above images. With low orbital inclinations relative to the equator of Mars of 1.1 degrees for Phobos and 0.9 degrees for Deimos, solar transits are not an uncommon occurrence, transpiring somewhere along the Martian surface with every orbit. If Phobos were twice as close to Mars, it would completely cover the Sun in a total solar eclipse. What Curiosity gave us this month is more akin to an annular eclipse with a ragged central shadow. An annular eclipse occurs when the occulting body is too distant to cover the Sun, leaving a bright, shining ring, or annulus.

On the Earth, we live in an epoch where annular eclipses are slightly more common than total solar eclipses, as the Moon currently recedes from us to the tune of 3.8 centimetres a year. About 1.4 billion years from now, the last total solar eclipse will be seen from the Earth. The next purely annular eclipse as seen from Earth occurs on April 29th, 2014 across Australia and the Antarctic.

Conversely, Phobos is in a “death spiral,” meaning that it will one day crash into Mars about 30-50 million years from now. This also means that in about half that time, it will also be large enough to visually cover the Sun when crossing it near local noon.  For a brief time far in the future, jagged total solar eclipses will be visible from Mars. That is, if the gravitational field of Mars doesn’t rip Phobos apart before that!

But beyond just aesthetics, these observations serve a scientific purpose as well. These phenomena serve to refine our understanding of the precise positions of Phobos and Deimos and their orbits.

“This one is by far the most detailed image of any Martian lunar transit ever taken, and it is especially useful because it is annular. It was taken closer to the Sun’s center than predicted, so we learned something.”

The track during the August 17th observation was off by about 2-3 kilometres, allowing for a surprise central transit of the Sun as seen from Curiosity’s location.

Both Phobos and Deimos are captured asteroids only 22.2 & 12.6 kilometres across, respectively. Both must be subject to occasional bombardment from meteorites blasted off of the surface of nearby Mars. Sample return missions to Phobos have been proposed. Russia’s ill-fated Phobos-Grunt mission would’ve done just that.

Will humans ever stand on the surface of the Red Planet and witness an annular eclipse of the Sun by Phobos in person? Well, if we make it there by November 10th, 2084, observers placed on the slopes of Elysium Mons will witness just such an event… with a rare transit of Earth and the Moon to boot!:

Arthur C. Clarke wrote of a transit of Earth from Mars that occurred in 1984 in his science fiction short story Transit of Earth.

Hey, I’m marking my calendar for the 2084 event… assuming, of course, my android body is ready by then!

A Wacky Distorted View of the Recent Solar Eclipse

Just when we’d thought that we’ve seen every possible type of eclipse image, we’re happily surprised by the Universe.

If you’re like me, you watch the original Star Wars film and wonder what kind of eclipses could be seen from the surface of Tatooine.  Maybe you even wonder what things would look like if an extra sun and moon were to be thrown into the mix. How often, if ever, would such a bizarre alignment sync up?

Astrophotographer Geoff Sims provided us with just such a bizarre view this past weekend.

Geoff was one of a handful of intrepid photographers that braved the wilds of the Australian Outback to deliver us some stunning views of last week’s rising annular eclipse. We wrote of how to observe this celestial wonder late last month on Universe Today, and documented the efforts of photographers, both Earthbound and otherwise, the day of the eclipse this past Friday.

For this amazing image, Geoff positioned himself along the track of annularity in the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia. Even the name of the site, the Plutonic Gold Mine outside of Newman, Australia couldn’t be beat!

The series is a composite of three exposures which were taken about three minutes apart. Mr. Simms relates how he accomplished this unforgettable image on his Facebook page:

“The lower image shows a flattened and distorted Sun perched right on the horizon, just seconds before the annular eclipse began. The middle image shows the annular phase, while the upper image shows the Sun some minutes after annularity.”

Mr. Sims used a Canon Mark III DSLR camera with a 500mm lens shooting at 1/1,000th of a second exposures at a focal ratio of f/8 and an ISO setting of 100.

Amazingly, other photographers positioned very near the eclipse graze line caught sight of what are known as Bailey’s Beads as well. More commonly seen during a total solar eclipse, these are caused by sunlight streaming through ridges and valleys on the limb of the Moon. This can also cause the brilliant diamond ring effect seen during a total solar eclipse. In the case of an annular eclipse, this manifests as a ragged broken edge where the disk of the Sun meets the Moon:

Bailey's Beads captured very briefly during last week's annular eclipse. (Credit: Geoff Sims).
Bailey’s Beads captured very briefly during last week’s annular eclipse. (Credit: Geoff Sims).

An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon eclipses the Sun near apogee, or its most distant point in its orbit and is hence visually too small to cover the Sun as seen from the Earth. A similar eclipse occurred over the Pacific and the western U.S. last year on May 20th, leading to a series of “horned sunset” photos taken across Texas and New Mexico.

But what is the most astonishing aspect of the eclipse sequence is the extreme distortion occurring across the very bottom image sitting on the horizon. When you’re looking low to the horizon, you’re viewing objects through a thicker cross-section of the atmosphere. This is what is termed as a higher air mass, and most astro-imagers avoid it entirely, preferring to catch objects with as little distortion as possible as they transit across the local meridian. This distortion can be extreme enough to result in atmospheric refraction of rising and setting objects like the Sun, Moon or planets, causing them to appear moments before or after they actually rose or set over the local horizon. In the case of the bottom image, the lower limb of the solar annulus (the technical name for what folks call the “ring of fire” seen during an annular eclipse) is actually distorted enough to appear along the rim of the local horizon!

To our knowledge, such an extremely distorted eclipse has never been documented before. One also wonders if a “green flash” could be captured by a properly positioned observer on a mountaintop or out to sea during a sunset or sunrise annular or total solar eclipse.

Newsflash: the green flash was indeed captured during last week’s annular eclipse… check out this amazing animation:

Ring of Fire – May 10 2013 Annular Solar Eclipse, Pilbara, Western Australia from Colin Legg on Vimeo.

Awesome!

2013 will offer one more chance to try to repeat this feat. On November 3rd, a hybrid solar eclipse will race across the Atlantic Ocean and central Africa. This is an eclipse that is literally an annular across a portion of its track and a total across another. The eclipse will begin at sunrise just south of Bermuda and end at sunset in eastern Africa. The maximum period of totality is 1 minute and 40 seconds off of the coast of Liberia, and the southern regions of Ethiopia offer the best shot at a sunset eclipse. Tantalizingly, the Florida Space Coast will get a rising partial eclipse only a few percent in magnitude.

Kudos to Mr. Sims for providing us with an unforgettable view of this rare cosmic spectacle. Australia won’t see another total solar eclipse until July 22nd, 2028, and another purely annular eclipse won’t occur until April 29th, 2014 across a very small section of the Antarctic.

And next week, we’ll have a very shallow penumbral eclipse on May 25th, and event is so subtle that few if any will notice it. Still, it is from such humble beginnings that great things are made, as we witness the birth of a new lunar saros… stay tuned!