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…

The Birth of a Saros – This Weekend’s Hidden Eclipse

As the first eclipse season of 2013 comes to an end this weekend, an extremely subtle lunar eclipse occurs on the night of Friday, May 24th going into the morning of Saturday, May 25th. And we do mean subtle, as in invisible to the naked eye… this eclipse only lasts 34 minutes in duration and less than 2% of the disk of the Moon enters the bright outer penumbra of the Earth’s shadow!

So, why talk about such a non-event at all?

Great things come from such humble beginnings. And while this weekend’s eclipse is one mostly for the almanacs and astronomical tables rather than a true observational event, it also marks the start of a new lunar saros cycle.

This weekend’s eclipse is one of five for 2013, a year which contains two solars and three lunars. This eclipse marks the end of the first “eclipse season” of the year, a time when the intersection of the Moon’s orbit (known as nodes) and the ecliptic nearly coincide with the position of the Sun (for a solar eclipse at New Moon) and the Earth’s shadow (for a lunar eclipse at Full Moon).

The current season began with a very slight partial eclipse on April 25th, followed by an annular eclipse on May 10th. It will last only 33 minutes and 45 seconds in duration starting at 03:53:11 UTC on May 25th. The Moon will be high over the Americas at the time, but again, shading on the southern limb of the Moon will be too slight to be seen.

Curiously, SLOOH will be providing live coverage of the eclipse, although again, it will be too slight to see.

Starry Night
The Full Moon just nicks the Earth’s penumbra in the early morning hours of May 25th. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

What is a saros? A saros is a period of 18 years 11 days and 8 hours after which an eclipse cycle lines up, producing a similar eclipse to the one that preceded it 18 years before. Note that due to its 8 hour offset, the Earth will have rotated 120° and the visibility region will have shifted westward.

In said period, three lunar cycles very nearly line up;

The Anomalistic month (the period the Moon takes to go from one perigee to another) = 27.555 days.

The Draconic month (the period the Moon takes to return to the same node) = 27.212 days.

The Synodic month (the most familiar one, the period between similar phases) = 29.531 days.

Note that:

239 Anomalistic months = 239×27.555= 6585.645 days.

242 Draconic months = 242×27.212=6585.304 days.

223 Synodic months = 223×29.531=6585.413 days.

There’s that mis-alignment of a third of a day again (8 hours) for every 18 years and 11 days. This also causes the node of each eclipse in the cycle to drift eastward by 0.5° along the ecliptic. Thus, each eclipse isn’t exactly the same. A lunar saros series starts with a very brief penumbral like this weekend’s, becomes deeper and deeper every 18+ year period until partial and total eclipses begin centuries down the road. Thereafter, the cycle reverses, until a final faint penumbral marks the end of the lunar saros.

diagram
The progression of selected eclipses of the same saros cycle. (Credit: Matthew Zimmerman. Wikimedia Commons graphic in the Public Domain).

After this weekend’s eclipse, the next start of a lunar saros won’t occur until November 8th 2060 with the start of saros 156. The last new saros series (number 149) began on June 13th, 1984.

There are numbered saros series for both lunar and solar eclipses. There are currently 41 saroses (the plural of saros) active with the inclusion of this weekend’s start of lunar saros 150.

Saros 150, of which this eclipse is the 1st of 71, will last for just over 1,262 years. It will begin to produce partial eclipses on August 20th, 2157 and produce its 1st total on its 32nd lunar eclipse on April 29th, 2572.

It amazes me that ancient cultures such as the Chaldeans new of saros cycles and could predict eclipses. Being geographically isolated, lunar eclipse cycles would have been easier to decipher than solar ones, as you only have to be on the Moonward facing hemisphere of the Earth to witness the eclipse. They may well have stumbled upon the saros while attempting to calculate a slightly longer 19 year period known as a Metonic cycle to align ancient luni-solar calendars.

And yes, that 8 hour offset also means that after a triple saros period, lunar and solar eclipses of the same saros series do return to roughly the same longitude every 54 years & 34 days. This is known as an exeligmos, and if you get this on a triple-word score in Scrabble, you can safely retire from the game.

NASA
The theoretical visibility circumstances for this week’s penumbral eclipse. (Credit: F. Espenak/NASA/GSFC).

And while this eclipse is more of academic than observational interest, you can always enjoy the light of a brilliant Full Moon. The May Full Moon is referred to as the Flower, Milk, and Corn Planting Moon by the Algonquian Indians of North America, alluding the latent season of Spring.

Also, keep an eye out for several conjunctions and occultations this week by the Moon with bright stars and planets.

The first up is the bright star Spica (Alpha Virginis) which gets occulted by the waxing gibbous Moon around ~11:00 UT on Wednesday, May 22nd for viewers across northern Australia, southern Asia and the South Pacific. Spica is one of four stars brighter than magnitude +1.5 that the Moon can occult, the others being Antares, Aldebaran and Regulus. This is the 6th occultation in a cycle of 13 of Spica by the Moon spanning 2013.

The planet Saturn will lie about 4° north of the waxing gibbous Moon on the following evening of May 23rd.

Also, watch for an occultation of the +2.6th magnitude star Beta Scorpii on the evening of May 24th around the time of the lunar eclipse. This will be a difficult one, as the Moon will be near 100% illumination. Conjunction of the Moon and Beta Scorpii in right ascension occurs at 3:04 UT on May 25th, about 2.5 hours after Full. The occultation will span the southeastern US, Caribbean, northern South America and western Africa.

Created by Author
Visibility path of the occultation of Beta Scorpii by the Moon. (Credit: Occult 4.1.0.2).

2013 isn’t a grand year for eclipses. We’ve got two more in the late season of the year, another slightly deeper penumbral on October 18th and a hybrid solar eclipse on November 3rd. And when, may you ask, will we FINALLY have another total lunar eclipse? Stick around ‘til U.S. Tax Day next year (April 15th 2014) for a total lunar eclipse spanning the Americas!