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.

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!

Our Complete Guide to the October 8th “Hunter’s Moon” Total Lunar Eclipse

October 2014 means eclipse season 2 of 2 for the year is upon us.

Don’t fear the ‘Blood Moon’ that’s currently infecting the web, but if you find yourself on the correct moonward facing hemisphere of the planet, do get out and observe the total lunar eclipse coming right up on the morning of Wednesday, October 8th. This is the second and final total lunar eclipse of 2014, and the second of four in a quartet series of lunar eclipses known as a tetrad.

And the good news is, the eclipse once again favors nearly all of North America. From the western U.S. and Canada, the Moon will be high in the western skies when partial phases begin early in the morning on October 8th. The western U.S., Canada and Alaska will see the entire 61 minute span of totality, just 18 minutes shorter than last April’s lunar eclipse. The Moon will be high in the sky during totality for the Hawaiian Islands, and viewers in Australia and the Pacific Far East will witness the eclipse in the evening hours.

The visibility regions for the total lunar eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Espenak.

This lunar eclipse is part of saros 127, and marks number 42 of a series of 72 for that particular saros. If you witnessed the total lunar eclipse visible from North America and Europe on September 27th, 1996, you caught the last of the series, and if you catch the next eclipse in the saros on October 18th, 2032, you’ve earned a veteran lunar eclipse-watchers badge of seeing an exeligmos, or “triple saros” of eclipses.

The path of the Moon through the Earth’s umbra on October 8th. Adapted from NASA/GFSC.

Timings for key phases of the eclipse are as follows:

P1- Penumbral phase begins: 8:14 UT/4:14 EDT/1:14 PDT

U1- Umbral (partial) phase begins: 9:15 UT/5:14 EDT/2:14 PDT

U2- Totality begins: 10:24 UT/6:24 EDT/3:24 PDT

Mid-totality- 10:55 UT/6:55 EDT/3:55 PDT

U3- Totality ends: 11:25 UT/7:25 EDT/4:25 PDT

U4- Umbral phase ends: 12:35 UT/5:35 PDT

P4- Penumbral phase ends: 13:35/6:35 PDT

Not all total lunar eclipses are the same when it comes to color. Totality can appear anywhere from a dark brick color, as happened during the December 9th, 1992, eclipse following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, when the Moon nearly disappeared during totality, to a bright coppery red, as seen during the April eclipse earlier this year. The Moon passes to the north of the dark central core of the Earth’ shadow next Wednesday, so expect a brighter than normal eclipse, especially along the Moon’s northeast limb. Grab a painter’s wheel and compare the eclipsed Moon to swatches of orange through red: what colors do you see? What you’re seeing is the combinations of all the world’s sunsets refracted into the cone of the Earth’s shadow, which is about three times the size of the Moon at its average distance as seen from Earth. Remember, the Moon is experiencing a total solar eclipse as we watch the lunar eclipse unfold!

The October 8th total solar eclipse as seen from the Apollo 11 landing site on the nearside of the Moon. Created using Stellarium.

This color can be quantified and described on what is known as the Danjon Scale, with 0 being a very dark eclipse with the Moon barely visible, to a 4, meaning a very bright eclipse.

And yes, each total lunar eclipse is now receiving the “Blood Moon” meme thanks to ye ole Internet. Expect the conspiracy-minded to note that this eclipse occurs on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot starting at sundown on the 8th, which isn’t really all that wondrous as the Jewish calendar is a luni-solar one, and total lunar eclipses have to occur during a Full Moon by definition. Wait long enough, and an occasional “Sukkot total lunar eclipse” does indeed occur.

Uranus occultation
The footprint of the October 8th occultation of Uranus by the Moon during totality. (Credit: Occult 4.1.0).

But a truly rare event does occur during this eclipse, as the Moon actually occults (passes in front of) the planet Uranus during totality for observers in northern Alaska and northeast Asia. The rest of us in the observing zone will see a near miss. Can you spy Uranus with binoculars near the lunar limb during totality? Another such rarity occurred during Shakespeare’s time on December 30th, 1591, involving Saturn and the eclipsed Moon, and another such odd occurrence transpires in 2344 A.D.

2344 eclipse
The circumstances of the 2344 eclipse/occultation. Credit: Starry Night, NASA/GSFC & Occult 4.0.1.

The brightest star to be occulted by the total eclipsed Moon as it crosses the constellation Pisces is +7.9th magnitude HIP 4231 for the northern U.S. and Canada.

And speaking of historical eclipses, there’s a Columbus Day tie-in with the phenomenon as well. Like many mariners of his day, Columbus was well-versed in celestial navigation, and used a total lunar eclipse to get a good one-time fix on his longitude at sea, an experiment that you can easily replicate. Columbus also wasn’t above using prior knowledge of an impending lunar eclipse to get himself and his crew out of a bind with the locals when the need arose.

An outstanding sequence of images taken during the April 15th, 2014 total lunar eclipse. Credit: Michael Zeiler (Eclipse-Maps) Used with permission.
An outstanding sequence of images taken during the April 15th, 2014, total lunar eclipse. Credit: Michael Zeiler (Eclipse-Maps) Used with permission.

Photographing an eclipse with a DSLR is as easy as shooting an image of the Moon. Try this a few evenings before the big event. A minimum focal length of 200mm is needed to render the Moon larger than a white dot in the image, and remember that the Moon is much darker during total eclipse, and you’ll need to step the exposure times rapidly down from 1/100th of a second to 2 to 4 seconds during totality.

A long-running effort by Sky & Telescope has been looking for amateur observations of precise crater contacts along the rim of the umbra in an effort to measure variations in the diameter of the Earth’s shadow.

starry night
The Moon versus Uranus as seen from Napa, California just past mid-eclipse on the morning of October 8th. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

As always, weather prospects are the big question mark when it comes to eclipses. Typically, the southwestern U.S. experiences 13-20 clear days in the month of October; prospects worsen to the northwest, with an average of 3-12 days. We’ll be looking at resources such as NOAA, Skippy Sky and ClearSkyChart on the evenings leading up to the 8th. The great thing about a lunar eclipse is, you don’t need a 100% clear sky to see it: just a clear view of the Moon!

Up for a challenge? We’ve yet to see a capture of a shadow transit of the International Space Station in front of the eclipsed Moon. This time around, such a capture should be possible across southern coastal California and the Baja peninsula just minutes prior to the onset of totality.

A shadow pass of the International Space Station just prior to the onset of totality. Note the position of the Moon. Created using Orbitron.

Another bizarre catch, known as a selenelion — witnessing the end of lunar totality after sunrise — may just be possible across the northeastern U.S. into the Canadian Maritimes as the eclipsed Moon sets during totality. The more elevation you can get the better! This works because the Moon lingers a bit in the large shadow of the Earth, plus atmospheric refraction gives the low altitude Sun and Moon a slight boost.

Clouded out? On the wrong side of the planet? You can watch the eclipse online at the following links:

– Live views courtesy of Gialuca Masi and the Virtual Telescope starting at 10:00 UT on October 8th.

– A live webcast starting at 9:00 UT courtesy of Slooh:

– A Columbia State University broadcast, (time to be determined).

Planning an ad-hoc broadcast? Let us know!

And as the eclipse wraps up, the biggest question is always: When’s the next one? Well, lunar eclipse number three of the four eclipse tetrad occurs next year on April 4th, 2015… but in just two weeks time, the western United States and Canada will also witness a fine partial solar eclipse on Oct 23rd

Stay tuned!

Got images of the total lunar eclipse? Send ‘em in to Universe Today’s Flickr forum!

Interested in eclipse sci-fi? Check out our latest short stories Exeligmos and Shadowfall.