How The Sun’s Scorching Corona Stays So Hot


We’ve got a mystery on our hands. The surface of the sun has a temperature of about 6,000 Kelvin – hot enough to make it glow bright, hot white. But the surface of the sun is not its last later, just like the surface of the Earth is not its outermost layer. The sun has a thin but extended atmosphere called the corona. And that corona has a temperature of a few million Kelvin.

How does the corona have such a higher temperature than the surface?

Like I said, a mystery.

Continue reading “How The Sun’s Scorching Corona Stays So Hot”

Here’s the First Image of the Sun from the Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe's WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe) instrument captured this image of a coronal streamer on Nov. 8th, 2018. Coronal streamers are structures of solar material within the Sun's atmosphere, the corona, that usually overlie regions of increased solar activity. The fine structure of the streamer is very clear, with at least two rays visible. The bright object near the center of the image is Mercury, and the dark spots are a result of background correction. Credits: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

It’s been 124 days since the Parker Solar Probe was launched, and several weeks since it made the closest approach any spacecraft has ever made to a star. Now, scientists are getting their hands on the data from the close approach. Four researchers at the recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. shared what they hope they can learn from the probe. They hope that data from the Parker Solar Probe will help them answer decades-old question about the Sun, its corona, and the solar wind.

Scientists who study the Sun have been anticipating this for a long time, and the waiting has been worth it.

“Heliophysicists have been waiting more than 60 years for a mission like this to be possible. The solar mysteries we want to solve are waiting in the corona.” – Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters.

Continue reading “Here’s the First Image of the Sun from the Parker Solar Probe”

Parker Solar Probe Became the Closest Thing We’ve Ever Sent to the Sun. And it’s Just Getting Started.

An artist's illustration of the Parker Solar Probe approaching the Sun. Image: NASA

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is now the closest object to the Sun that we’ve ever sent into space. On Oct. 29, 2018, at about 1:04 p.m. EDT, NASA’s probe broke the old record for the close-to-Sun distance of 42.73 million km (26.55 million miles). That record was held by the German-American Helios 2 spacecraft in 1976. And the probe will keep getting closer to the Sun.

Continue reading “Parker Solar Probe Became the Closest Thing We’ve Ever Sent to the Sun. And it’s Just Getting Started.”

Watch the Sun to Know When We’re Going to Have Killer Auroras

To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.

Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.

This image of the northern lights over Canada was taken by a crew member on board the ISS in Sept. 2017. Image: NASA

There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).

A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.

The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.

Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.

The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.

This photo is of the aurora australis over New Zealand. Image: Paul Stewart, Public Domain, CC 1.0 Universal.

Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.

Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.

A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.

That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the Sun that are cooler than the surrounding areas. They form where magnetic fields are particularly strong. The highly active magnetic fields near sunspots often cause solar flares. Image: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.

We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.

Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.

NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe Will Touch the Sun — So Can You

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will launch this summer and study both the solar wind and unanswered questions about the Sun’s sizzling corona. Credit: NASA

How would you like to take an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sun? NASA is inviting people around the world to submit their names to be placed on a microchip aboard the Parker Solar Probe mission that will launch this summer. As the spacecraft dips into the blazing hot solar corona your name will go along for the ride. To sign up, submit your name and e-mail. After a confirming e-mail, your digital “seat” will be booked. You can even print off a spiffy ticket. Submissions will be accepted until April 27, so come on down!

Step right up! Head over before April 27 to put a little (intense) sunshine in your life. Click the image to go there. Credit: NASA

The Parker Solar Probe is the size of a small car and named for Prof. Eugene Parker, a 90-year-old American astrophysicist who in 1958 discovered the solar wind. It’s the first time that NASA has named a spacecraft after a living person. The Parker probe will launch between July 31 and August 19 but not immediately head for the Sun. Instead it will make a beeline for Venus for the first of seven flybys. Each gravity assist will slow the craft down and reshape its orbit (see below), so it later can pass extremely close to the Sun. The first flyby is slated for late September.

When heading to faraway places, NASA typically will fly by a planet to increase the spacecraft’s speed by robbing energy from its orbital motion. But a probe can also approach a planet on a different trajectory to slow itself down or reconfigure its orbit.

The spacecraft will swing well within the orbit of Mercury and more than seven times closer than any spacecraft has come to the Sun before. When closest at just 3.9 million miles (6.3 million km), it will pass through the Sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona and be subjected to temperatures around 2,500°F (1,377°C). The primary science goals for the mission are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.

The Parker Solar Probe will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the Sun, coming as close as 3.7 million miles (5.9 million km), well within the orbit of Mercury. Closest approaches (called perihelia) will happen in late December 2024 and the first half of 2025 before the mission ends. Credit: NASA

The vagaries of the solar wind, a steady flow of particles that “blows” from the Sun’s corona at more than million miles an hour, can touch Earth in beautiful ways as when it energizes the aurora borealis. But it can also damage spacecraft electronics and poorly protected power grids on the ground. That’s why scientists want to know more about how the corona works, in particular why it’s so much hotter than the surface of the Sun — temperatures there are several million degrees.

During the probe’s closest approach, the Sun’s apparent diameter will span 14° of sky. Compare that to the ½° Sun we see from Earth. Can you imagine how hot the Sun’s rays would be if it were this large from Earth? Life as we know it would be over. Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

As you can imagine, it gets really, really hot near the Sun, so you’ve got to take special precautions. To perform its mission, the spacecraft and instruments will be protected from the Sun’s heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield, which will keep the four instrument suites designed to study magnetic fields, plasma and energetic particles, and take pictures of the solar wind, all at room temperature.

Similar to how the Juno probe makes close passes over Jupiter’s radiation-fraught polar regions and then loops back out to safer ground, the Parker probe will make 24 orbits around the Sun, spending a relatively short amount of face to face time with our star. At closest approach, the spacecraft will be tearing along at about 430,000 mph, fast enough to get from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in under a minute, and will temporarily become the fastest manmade object. The current speed record is held by Helios-B when it swung around the Sun at 156,600 mph (70 km/sec) on April 17, 1976.

A composite of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse showing the Sun’s spectacular corona. Astronomers still are sure why it’s so much hotter than the 10,000°F solar surface (photosphere). Theories include a microflares or magnetic waves that travel up from deep inside the Sun. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer /

Many of you saw last August’s total solar eclipse and marveled at the beauty of the corona, that luminous spider web of light around Moon’s blackened disk. When closest to the Sun at perihelion the Parker probe will fly to within 9 solar radii (4.5 solar diameters) of its surface. That’s just about where the edge of the furthest visual extent of the corona merged with the blue sky that fine day, and that’s where Parker will be!

Witnessing the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Across America Mesmerizes Millions: Photo/Video Gallery

Solar corona and prominences during the total solar eclipse across America on Monday, August 21, 2017, as seen from Santee, South Carolina and 4.8 miles from the centerline. Credit: Ken Kremer/

SANTEE, SOUTH CAROLINA – Witnessing ‘Totality’ during Monday’s ‘Great American Solar Eclipse’ was a truly mesmerizing experience far beyond anything I imagined and something I will never forget -That’s a sentiment shared by millions upon millions of fellow gushing spectators.

I was stationed in Santee, South Carolina, near Lake Marion and close to the centerline of Totality, along with space journalist friend and colleague Jeff Seibert. And we could not have asked for clearer skies to enjoy this awesome natural event made possible by a uniquely rare confluence of miraculous celestial mechanics.

Check out our expanding gallery of personal photos and videos as well as many more gathered from friends and colleagues herein.

Totality was mesmerizing! Although I fully hoped to see a science spectacle (weather permitting) – I wasn’t really prepared for the majesty of the ‘coronal fire’ of Totality on display in the sky that started with what seemed like a startling electric flash – – The sun was alive far beyond anything I imagined beforehand. An out of body experience truly beyond my wildest dreams.

And we really lucked out with the weather – – as the odds of good weather are apparently better near Lake Marion, local residents told me. Just 15 miles south in Saint George, SC where I held a well attended eclipse outreach event at my hotel the night before, it was sadly socked in.

Solar corona bursts out during the total solar eclipse across America on Monday, August 21, 2017, as seen from Santee, South Carolina and 4.8 miles from the centerline. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Despite a less than promising weather forecast, the threatening Carolina storm clouds obscuring our sun as we awoke and got our camera gear together Monday morning, fortunately scooted away.

Just in the nick of time the rainy gray breakfast clouds miraculously parted as eclipse time approached and almost completely disappeared by lunchtime – fully an hour prior to the eclipses beginning from our viewing location in Santee; near beautiful Lake Marion, South Carolina, which intersects the heavily traveled I-95 North/South Interstate highway corridor.

Like tens of millions of others, I’ve seen several partial solar eclipses, but this was my first total solar eclipse and it did not disappoint!

And there is just no comparison between seeing a partial and a total solar eclipse – sort of like a family before and after having a baby.

Solar corona and multiple prominences visible during the total solar eclipse across America on Monday, August 21, 2017, as seen from Santee, South Carolina and 4.8 miles from the centerline. Credit: Ken Kremer/

A few hundred excited people from across the East Coast including some families with kids had coincidentally gathered at our Santee location by the Water Park.

At Santee, SC, we enjoyed unobstructed totality for all 2 minutes, 34 seconds – very close to the longest possible duration of 2 min 43 seconds experienced by folks congregated in Carbondale, Illinois.

Overall our eclipse experience began at 1:14:55 p.m. EDT and concluded at 4:08:01 EDT – nearly three hours.

Totality started at 2:43:42 p.m. EDT and concluded at 2:46:16 p.m. EDT.

View shows partial solar eclipse as the moon begins obscuring the sun on the way to totality during the 2017 total solar eclipse on August 21, as seen from Santee, South Carolina and close to the centerline. Credit: Ken Kremer/

At lunchtime it was a boiling hot, skin stinging 95+ degrees F. But barely half an hour into the eclipse and with the sun perhaps only a third covered the area noticeably cooled and darkened and the sunburn was gone.

As the eclipse deepened, the sky really darkened to the point we almost needed a flashlight and it was downright comfortable temperature wise.

I’m over the Moon so to speak and still replaying the totality event in my mind from start to finish.

You can follow along by watching this thrilling solar eclipse video produced by Jeff Seibert, and listen to the cheering crowd to get a sense of our Carolina Totality adventure:

Video Caption: Total Solar eclipse from Santee, SC on August 21, 2017. We were 4.8 miles South of the Umbra center line, and had clear weather until just before last contact. Credit: Jeff Seibert

At Santee we were 87% into the umbra with a 70 mile wide (115 km) lunar shadow path width, at 136 feet elevation above sea level.

There is just nothing like ‘Totality’ in my experience as a research scientist and journalist – working with and seeing cool science and space hardware up close.

Totality is a natural wonder of the Universe and it was an electrifying event.

At the moment that totality commenced, day turned almost instantly to night as though someone threw a light switch.

I distinctly heard crackling sounds burst through the air, akin to a thunderbolt clap at that very moment – heralding our sudden jolt to totality.

Cheers broke out. Everyone and myself were so totally in awe of totality. And the sun’s brilliant while corona suddenly became visible, alive and in motion as the solar surface was completely blocked, hidden behind our moon. So I just stared at the stunning beauty, barely able to function as a photographer.

The planet Venus quickly and suddenly and incredibly popped out brilliantly from the darkness of the daytime sky. Some stars were also visible.

You absolutely must experience this incomparable wonder of nature with you own eyeballs.

Focus on the fleeting moment.

Because in a flash of just 2.5 minutes #Eclipse2017 was gone & done!

The all natural light switch had been turned back on by mother nature herself.

If only a replay or restart were possible – someone in the crowd yelled in glee. And we all thought the same way.

Totality, like rockets and science can be addictive in a very positive way.

Furthermore, we also saw the famed partial solar crescents reflecting through trees onto the ground during the partial eclipse phases.

A sliver of the sun reappears after totality concludes during the 2017 total solar eclipse on August 21, as seen from Santee, South Carolina and close to the centerline. Credit: Ken Kremer/

We very luckily enjoyed virtually perfect weather and clear blue skies for the entirely of the eclipse – from first contact, through totality and the last limb of contact of Earth’s moon covering the sun.

Only a few scattered cloud patches dotted overhead at the start and rapidly exited.

And very happily we were not alone.

The Aug. 21 ‘Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ was enjoyed by tens of millions more lucky spectators, including many friends lining the solar eclipses narrow path of Totality from coast to coast.

The 70-mile-wide (115 km) swath of the Moons shadow raced across America from Oregon to South Carolina in a thrilling event that became sort of a communal experience with all the explanatory news coverage foreshadowing what was to come.

Everyone in North America was able to witness at least a partial solar eclipse, weather permitting- and many did either on there own or at special solar eclipse events organized at towns and cities at museums, parks and open spaces across the country.

12 million people live directly in the path of 2017 solar eclipse totality as it passed through 14 states.

It was the first total solar eclipse visible from the United States since Feb. 26, 1979. And it was the first such coast to coast eclipse crossing the entire continental United States in 99 years since June 8, 1918 during World War 1.

The umbra (or dark inner shadow) of the Moon moved west to east at 3000 MPH in Oregon and 1500 MPH by the time it reached our location in South Carolina.

The 2017 solar eclipse began on the west coast with the lunar shadow entering the US near Lincoln City, Oregon at 9:05 PDT, with totality beginning at 10:15 PDT, according to a NASA description.

Totality ended along the US East Coast in the coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina at 2:48 p.m. EDT. The last remnants of lunar shadow departed at 4:09 p.m. EDT. Charleston is about an hour or so east of my viewing location in Santee and folks there enjoyed stunning views too.

For as long as I live the 2017 Solar Eclipse Totality will be burned into my mind!

Partial solar eclipse as seen from Port Canaveral, Florida where a maximum of about 86% of the sun was covered during the 2017 total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Credit: Julia Bergeron

“I’m pretty sure it was not nearly as epic as the total eclipse. It was fun to watch with teenagers though. I think what was unique to me was that I was capturing the equivalent of a crescent sun. Did it get dark here, of course not, but there were a few minutes where the Space Coast went a bit dim. The most fun was looking for the shadows,” writes Julia Bergeron from Port Canaveral, FL.

Partial solar eclipse as seen from Port Canaveral, Florida where a maximum of about 86% of the sun was covered during the 2017 total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Credit: Julia Bergeron

The 2017 Total solar eclipse as seen from a cell phone through eclipse glasses and reached about 86% of totality in this view from Titusville, Florida on Aug. 21, 2017. Credit: Ashley Carrillo

The 2017 Total solar eclipse as seen from a cell phone through eclipse glasses and reached about 86% of totality in this view from Titusville, Florida on Aug. 21, 2017. Credit: Ashley Carrillo

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite Minotaur IV ORS-5, TDRS-M, CRS-12 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The 2017 Total solar eclipse as seen through eclipse glasses reached about 86% of totality in this view from Melbourne, Florida on Aug. 21, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek


Learn more about the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse, upcoming Minotaur IV ORS-5 military launch on Aug. 25, recent ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 , SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 24-26: “2017 Total Solar Eclipse Minotaur IV ORS-5, TDRS-M NASA comsat, SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Solar crescents projected on the ground after sunlight funnels through trees during the partial eclipse phases on Aug. 21, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Solar crescents projected onto the top of a picnic cooler and pine needles on the ground after sunlight funnels through trees during the partial eclipse phases on August 21 in Santee, SC. Credit: Ken Kremer/

2017 Total Solar Eclipse as seen from Red Bank, SC. Credit: John Gould

Solar crescents projected on the ground after sunlight funnels through trees during the partial eclipse phases from Red Bank, SC on Aug. 21, 2017. Credit: John Gould

“Astonished at the vivacity and brightness of the corona, and the contrast with the infinitely dark moon. Through binos it almost had me in tears,” writes John Gould from Red Bank, SC.

2017 Total Solar Eclipse and Bailey’s Beads as seen from Santee State Park, SC. Credit: Patrick Hendrickson/HighCamera Photographic Service

Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 as seen from Tennessee. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 as seen from Tennessee. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Weekly Space Hangout – June 2, 2017: Mike Simmons of Astronomers Without Borders

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Mike Simmons is the President of Astronomer Without Borders. Mike is joining us today to discuss how AWB will be engaging the public and our schools both during and following the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. You can find the AWB Eclipse education program website here.
If you’d like to purchase eclipse glasses from AWB, all of the proceeds go to science education programs! Order here!


Sarah Marquart ( / @SagaofSarah)
Brian Koberlein ( / @BrianKoberlein)

Their stories this week:

Tomorrow, SpaceX Will Transform Spaceflight Forever

NASA Just Unveiled Their Next Mission “We Will Finally Touch the Sun”

Lunar Observer Struck by Meteoroid

Testing Gravitons With BH Mergers

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (, which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!


The WSH recently welcomed back Mathew Anderson, author of “Our Cosmic Story,” to the show to discuss his recent update. He was kind enough to offer our viewers free electronic copies of his complete book as well as his standalone update. Complete information about how to get your copies will be available on the WSH webpage – just visit for all the details.

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

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

See a Flirtatious Lunar Eclipse This Friday Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to See the Space Station Fly in Front of the Moon

What strange creature is this flitting across the Moon? Several members of the European Space Agency’s Astronomy Center captured these views of the International Space Station near Madrid, Spain on January 14 as it flew or transited in front of the full moon. Credit: Michel Breitfellner, Manuel Castillo, Abel de Burgos and Miguel Perez Ayucar / ESA

One-one thou… That’s how long it takes for the International Space Station, traveling at over 17,000 mph (27,300 kph), to cross the face of the Full Moon. Only about a half second! To see it with your own eyes, you need to know exactly when and where to look. Full Moon is best, since it’s the biggest the moon can appear, but anything from a half-moon up and up will do.

The photo above was made by superimposing 13 separate images of the ISS passing in front of the Moon into one. Once the team knew when the pass would happen, they used a digital camera to fire a burst of exposures, capturing multiple moments of the silhouetted spacecraft.

The ISS transits the Full Moon in May 2016

The ISS is the largest structure in orbit, spanning the size of a football field, but at 250 miles (400 km) altitude, it only appears as big as a modest lunar crater. While taking a photo sequence demands careful planning, seeing a pass is bit easier. As you’d suspect, the chances of the space station lining up exactly with a small target like the Moon from any particular location is small. But the ISS Transit Finder makes the job simple.

This is a screen grab from the homepage of Bartosz Wojczy?ski’s most useful ISS Transit Finder. Credit: Bartosz Wojczy?ski

Click on the link and fill in your local latitude, longitude and altitude or select from the Google maps link shown. You can always find your precise latitude and longitude at NASA’s Latitude/Longitude Finder  and altitude at Google Maps Find Altitude. Next, set the time span of your Moon transit search (up to one month from the current date) and then how far you’re willing to drive to see the ISS fly in front of the Moon.

When you click Calculate, you’ll get a list of events with little diagrams showing where the ISS will pass in relation to the Moon and sun (yes, the calculator also does solar disk crossings!) from your location. Notice that most of the passes will be near misses. However, if you click on the Show on Map link, you’ll get a ground track of exactly where you will need to travel to see it squarely cross Moon or Sun. Times shown are your local time, not Universal or UT.

A beautiful ISS transit on June 19 2015 recorded at Biscarrosse, France. The photographer used CalSky, another excellent satellite site, to prepare a week in advance of the event. This composite image was made with a Canon EOS 60D. Notice how bright the space station appears against the moon due to the lower-angled lighting across the lunar landscape at crescent phase compared to full, when the ISS appears in silhouette. Credit: David Duarte

The map also includes Recalculate for this location link. Clicking that will show you a sketch of the ISS’ predicted path across the Moon from the centerline location along with other details. I checked my city, and while there are no lunar transits for the next month, there’s a very nice solar one visible just a few miles from my home on Feb. 8. Remember to use a safe solar filter if you plan on viewing one of these!

The ISS transits the Sun on May 3, 2016. Click for details on how the photo was taken. Credit: Szabolcs Nagy

While you might attempt to see a transit of the ISS in binoculars, your best bet is with a telescope. Nothing fancy required, just about any size will do so long as it magnifies at least 30x to 40x. Timing is crucial. Like an occultation, when the moon hides a background star in an instant, you want to be on time and 100% present.

Make sure you’re set up and focused on the moon or sun (with filter) at least 5 minutes beforehand. Keep your cellphone handy. I’ve found the time displayed at least on my phone to be accurate. One minute before the anticipated transit, glue your eye to the eyepiece, relax and wait for the flyby. Expect something like a bird in silhouette to make a swift dash across the moon’s face. The video above will help you anticipate what to expect.

The next lunar transit nearest my home is an hour and a half away in the small town of Biwabik, Minn. according to the ISS Transit Finder. On Jan. 30 at 8:00:08 p.m local time, the ISS will cross the crescent moon from there. Once you know the time of the prediction and the exact latitude and longitude of the location (all information shown in the info box on the map using the ISS Transit Finder), you can turn on the satellites feature in the free Stellarium program (, select the ISS and create a simulated, detailed path. Created with Stellarium

Even if you never go to the trouble of identifying a “direct hit”, you can still use the transit finder to compile a list of cool lunar close approaches that would make for great photos with just a camera and tripod.

The Transit Finder isn’t the only way to predict ISS flybys. Some observers also use the excellent satellite site, CalSky. Once you tell it your location, select the Lunar/Solar Disk Crossings and Occultations link for lots of information including times, diagrams of crossings, ground tracks and more.

I use Stellarium (above) to make nifty simulated paths and show me where the Moon will be in the sky at the time of the transit. When you’ve downloaded the free program, get the latest satellite orbital elements this way:

* Move you cursor to the lower left of the window and select the Configuration box
* Click the Plugins tab and scroll down to Satellites and click Configure and then Update
Hover the cursor at the bottom of the screen for a visual menu. Slide over to the satellite icon and click it once for Satellite hints. The ISS will now be active.
* Set the clock and location (lower left again) for the precise time and location, then do a search for the Moon, and you’ll see the ISS path.

There you have it — lots of options. Or you can simply use the Transit Finder and call it a day! I hope you’ll soon be in the right place at the right time to see the space station pass in front of the Moon. Checking my usual haunts, I see that the space station will be returning next weekend (Jan. 27) to begin an approximately 3-week run of easily viewable evening passes.