On Monday, Aug. 21, for the first time in almost 100 years, all of North America will be treated to an eclipse of the sun. Those in the path of totality, running from Oregon to South Carolina, will experience one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events — a total solar eclipse.
Scientists, researchers and experts from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will mobilize to experience the eclipse and share it with others. They will join participants from across the agency for a multi-hour broadcast, titled Eclipse Across America: Through the Eyes of NASA, to offer unprecedented live video of the celestial event, along with coverage of activities in parks, libraries, stadiums, festivals and museums across the nation, and on social media.
“It’s going to be a spectacular event,” said Marshall Chief Scientist James Spann. “We’ll be sharing our research and work with people and letting them know how to safely view the eclipse, not only at the events in the path of totality, but also worldwide online and on NASA Television. Excited doesn’t begin to describe how our team feels right now. It truly will be breath-taking, and we can’t wait.”
Marshall experts will be located at two of the broadcast’s 15 locations — Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Marshall’s Meteoroid Environment Office’s very own Dr. Bill Cooke, created this graphic showing the idealized view through a telescope with an H-alhpa filter at maximum eclipse for 4 locations: Birmingham, which will experience a 93% eclipse, Atlanta, which will have 97% of the Sun covered, the 97% eclipse in Huntsville, and the 99.6% eclipse in Chattanooga, which shows only the tiniest sliver of Sun down on the bottom.
The motion of the moon is what causes eclipses, but the dramatic change in sunlight is what makes them so impressive to observers. But what exactly is happening when the moon passes in front of the sun?
The moon is blocking the sun’s light from reaching Earth, but there is more to the situation than just that. Their relative distance to Earth is one of the most important factors.
The sun is about 400 times farther from Earth than the moon and has a diameter about 400 times larger than the moon. As a result, both the sun and moon (near perigee) appear to be the same size in the sky, allowing the moon to perfectly block out the sun and cast a shadow on Earth during a total eclipse.
The shadow we see while in the path of totality is called the umbra, and the shadow of the surrounding partial eclipse is a penumbra. The shadow from an annular eclipse (when the moon appears smaller than the sun during an eclipse, and so a ring of light is visible around it) is called an anteumbra.
The physics of how each type of shadow is formed is difficult to explain but easy to visualize, so before I tell you about them, here is a picture (technically a ray diagram) of what happens during an eclipse:
For a total eclipse, the moon has to block out all of the sun’s light. To put the moon in the best position, imagine that a person on Earth is standing under the exact middle of the moon, the centerline of a total solar eclipse.
In this case, light coming from the middle of the sun is clearly going to be blocked by the moon, since it is directly in the way and visible light cannot penetrate rock. The most difficult light to block will be coming from the top and bottom of the sun.
To figure out whether the light will be blocked, a bit of drawing can help. If the light is coming from the exact bottom of the sun and you are wondering if a person can see the light while under the exact center of the moon, draw a line between where the light starts and the person’s eyes.
Does the moon get in the way of the line? If yes, then the person is experiencing a total solar eclipse. None of the sun’s light can get past the moon, so the sun is fully blocked.
If the answer is no, but the person is still standing under the center of the moon, then they are in an annular eclipse. The moon is in the perfect position to block all of the sun’s light, but it still fails to do so. In this case, it will appear to be a large black circle with a ring of sunlight called an annulus around it.
A partial eclipse is the most difficult to explain, since it has the most variability. All but a sliver of the sun may be blocked, or the moon can barely cover any of the sun. In general though, a partial solar eclipse happens when the moon is not quite directly between the observer and sun, but is still in the way of some sunlight.
You can use the same process for determining whether a person is experiencing a total solar eclipse to figure out if they are in the penumbral shadow of the moon. A slight complication is that the moon is off center, so it matters more where the origin point of the light is.
If the person is standing a little north of the moon’s center, then the line from origin to person should start from the sun’s southernmost point, the bottom, since the northern light is less likely to be blocked due to the moon being a bit more to the south from the person’s perspective.
If any of the sun’s light is blocked by the moon, then the person is experiencing a partial solar eclipse. The limit of this blockage, where only the slightest amount of sunlight is blocked, is the edge of the penumbra shadow.
If the moon is not blocking any light, then the moon may be close to the sun but there is no eclipse happening on that spot of Earth.
On Aug. 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cross the full continental United States along a narrow, 70-mile-wide path from Oregon to South Carolina.
The last total eclipse in the U.S. was in 1979. And the last total solar eclipse that crossed the entire continental U.S. happened in 1918. But why? Why has it been 99 years, and why have the intervening partial and even total eclipses caught only parts of the country?
In short, celestial geometry is complicated but predictable. Much like many other aspects of the cosmos, it is cyclic.
Need a minute to catch up? Go ahead. We’ll wait. Credit: NASA
Eclipse cycles arise from a natural harmony between three motions of the moon’s orbit. We call them “months” due to their repetitive nature.
The synodic month governs the moon’s phases. It’s measured by the time it takes to go from one new moon to the next, which takes about 29 ½ days. In that time, the moon rotates once around its own axis and goes around Earth once.
From the perspective of a solar eclipse, the new moon phase is important. It’s the point in the moon’s orbit when it passes between Earth and the sun. A total solar eclipse can only happen at a new moon, and only when the other types of movement line up as well.
New moons happen once a month, but we don’t see eclipses every month because the moon’s orbit is tipped by about five degrees from Earth’s orbit around the sun. On most months, the new moon casts its shadow either above or below Earth, making a solar eclipse a rare treat.
The moon’s tilted orbit meets the sun-Earth plane at two points called nodes. A draconic month is the time it takes the moon to return to the same node. The moon’s orbital nodes drift over time, which is why a single location on Earth’s surface might wait hundreds of years between total eclipses.
As the moon orbits Earth, it also wobbles up and down, making total eclipses rarer than they otherwise would be. Credit: NASA
The moon’s path around Earth is not a perfect circle, which means the distance between us and the moon changes all the time. When the moon is closest to Earth in its orbit we call it perigee, and apogee when it’s farthest. This change in distance gives rise to the anomalistic month, the time from perigee to perigee.
The farther away the moon is from Earth, the smaller it appears. When the moon blocks all of the sun’s light, a total eclipse occurs, but when the moon is farther away — making it appear smaller from our vantage point on Earth — it blocks most, but not all of the sun. This is called an annular eclipse, which leaves a ring of the sun’s light still visible from around the moon. This alignment usually occurs every year or two, but is only visible from a small area on Earth.
A total solar eclipse requires the alignment of all three cycles — the synodic, anomalistic, and draconic months. This happens every 18 years 11 days and 8 hours, a period known as a saros.
One saros period after an eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth return to approximately the same relative geometry, a near straight line, and a nearly identical eclipse will occur. The moon will have the same phase and be at the same node and the same distance from Earth. Earth will be nearly the same distance from the sun, and tilted to it in nearly the same orientation.
The extra eight hours is the reason why successive eclipses in the same saros cycle happen over different parts of Earth. Earth rotates an extra third of the way around its axis. Each total solar eclipse track looks similar to the previous one, but it’s shifted 120 degrees westward.
During this year’s total solar eclipse, anyone within the path of totality will be able to see one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights. This path, where the moon will completely cover the sun and the sun’s tenuous atmosphere — the corona — can be seen, will stretch from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Observers outside this path will still see a partial solar eclipse where the moon covers part of the sun’s disk. A total solar eclipse presents the rare opportunity to observe the corona and chromosphere, and eclipse observations are important for understanding why sun’s atmosphere is 1 million degrees hotter than its surface.
Want to find out more about this year’s total solar eclipse — like what totality means and why the path of totality is so much smaller than the overall eclipse? Wonder how long it takes photons from the sun to reach Earth? Curious about dark matter and what we know about it? All are possibilities in the newly revamped Watch the Skies blog.
Hello and welcome back! We will be posting content more regularly, although it will be somewhat changed from before. You can look forward to new articles explaining different astronomy topics, breaking down complex science and jargon in a way that people can understand.
We’ll kick things off this week with some solar eclipse science. So come back then to learn more about just how wonderful and strange our universe can get!
Kevin Matyi is a summer intern in the Office of Communications at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
In the Americas on Sunday night, Sept. 27, we will be treated to a lunar eclipse with its beautiful orange and red colors, a prelude to the fall color of leaves in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. This eclipse will straddle midnight on Sept. 27, depending on where you live. If observing close to the Greenwich Meridian in the U.K., the eclipse begins just after midnight, in the morning of Sept. 28 at 00:11 Universal Time (UT). But Sept. 28, 00:11 UT, translates to Sept. 27, 8:11 p.m. EDT and 7:11 p.m. CDT.
All of the Americas are well placed to see this eclipse. The table below lists eclipse timing details. If you have questions about this eclipse, you will have an opportunity to ask experts at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama!
About Lunar Eclipses
Throughout human culture, lunar eclipses have been viewed with awe and sometimes fear. Today we know that a total lunar eclipse happens when the full moon passes through the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, the umbra. Near the beginning and ending of an eclipse, the moon moves through a less dark portion of the shadow, called the penumbra, which is hardly visible. The partial phase begins (ends) when the moon enters (leaves) the umbra. When the moon has completely passed into Earth’s shadow, the eclipse is in its total phase.
The length of the eclipse is dependent on the position of the moon along an Earth-sun line. The longest eclipses occur when the moon is directly in line with Earth and sun. The shortest eclipses are when the moon is either above or below that line. The moon does not make its own light; it only reflects the light it receives from the sun. During a lunar eclipse, the moon appears less and less bright as sunlight is blocked by Earth. As totality approaches, more and more of the sunlight reaching the moon does so indirectly; it is refracted around the “edges”of Earth, through our atmosphere.
Because the light is going through the Earth’s atmosphere, almost all colors except red are “filtered” out and the eclipsed moon appears reddish or dark brown. The filtering is done by particulates in the atmosphere; when there have been a lot of fires and/or volcanic eruptions, lunar eclipses will be darker and redder. This eerie but harmless effect has earned the tongue-in-cheek nickname “blood moon.”
Supermoon – No, not SuperMan, SuperMoon
The moon orbits Earth in an ellipse that is almost circular (as is the orbit of most planets around the sun), but because the orbit is elliptical, sometimes the moon is closest to Earth (perigee) and sometimes farthest from Earth (apogee). The position of the moon for the Sept. 27/28 eclipse is very close to perigee, so it will appear a bit larger in the sky than a month from now.
You could measure this, with simple items from around the house. Try using a coin (or button or marble) at arm’s length to block the full moon, do this at a particular time, then try it again for the next several months at full moon, at the same time. If the coin (or other item) covers the moon on Sept. 27 (2015), it will more than cover the moon at later times, proving that the moon is smaller and thus farther away. Also, because the moon is at perigee (close approach to Earth) a supermoon will cause slightly larger tidal effects.
How to View and Ask Questions
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will offer a live Ustream view of the lunar eclipse on the Sept. 27, the night of the event, via the Marshall Center Ustream feed. The live feed is an alternative for observers caught with bad weather or light-polluted night skies.
Mitzi Adams, a solar physicist at Marshall, will talk about what viewers are seeing on screen and answering questions from Twitter. To ask a question, use the hashtag: “AskNASA.”
On Saturday morning, April 4, 2015 not long before sunrise, the bright full moon over North America should turn a lovely shade of celestial red during a total lunar eclipse. Join NASA astronomer Mitzi Adams as she takes questions via Twitter @NASA_Marshall. For Twitter questions, use the hashtag #eclipse2015. The question and answer via Twitter will begin at 6 a.m. EDT and continue through the end of the eclipse (approximately 8:00 a.m. EDT on April 4).
The lunar eclipse will be visible from all parts of the United States. Eastern North America and western South America can see beginning stages of the partial umbral eclipse low in the west before sunrise April 4, whereas middle Asia (India, western China, mid-Asian Russia) can view the ending stages of the partial umbral eclipse low in the east after sunset April 4. Greenland, Iceland, Europe, Africa and the Middle East won’t see this eclipse at all. A world map of eclipse visibility is available here. The total eclipse will last only five minutes. You can find more information here.
On Thursday, October 23, 2014, from 5:00pm – 6:00pm CDT, Marshall scientists Mitzi Adams, Sabrina Savage and Alphonse Sterling will be taking questions about the partial solar eclipse on the NASA Marshall Twitter account: http://twitter.com/NASA_Marshall, using the hashtag #askNASA.
At approximately 4:54 p.m. CDT, the eclipse will begin, with maximum eclipse occurring at 5:54 p.m. The partial eclipse will end at 6:49 p.m. CDT, which is after 6:02 pm sunset in Huntsville.
The magnitude of this eclipse, that is the fraction of the Sun’s diameter covered by the moon, will be 44%. The obscuration, or the fraction of the Sun’s area occulted by the moon, will be 32%.The Sun will be in the constellation Virgo, with Saturn low on the horizon after sunset, and Mars will be farther to the east.
A live Ustream feed of the partial solar eclipse will be available here.
Local Viewing Opportunity
Von Braun Astronomical Society (VBAS) is partnering with the U.S. Space & Rocket Center® on Thursday, October 23, 2014, from 5 p.m. until sundown, for the observance of the partial solar eclipse. Join astronomers in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration parking lot to discuss the phenomenon and observe the solar eclipse through the telescopes. There will be visible-light viewing telescopes to see any sunspots, and special telescopes with hydrogen-light viewing in order to see the prominences at the edge of the sun.
The telescopes are equipped with filters for safe viewing of the sun. Never look at the Sun directly! Attempting to look directly at the sun without such special filters is harmful to the eyes.
This event is free and open to the public.