A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and the Earth so that the Sun is fully or partially covered. This can only happen during a new moon, when the Sun and Moon are in conjunction as seen from the Earth. At least two and up to five solar eclipses can occur every year on Earth, with between zero and two of them being total eclipses. Total solar eclipses are nevertheless rare at any location because during each eclipse totality exists only along a narrow corridor in the relatively tiny area of the Moon’s umbra.
A total solar eclipse is a stunning natural incident and many people travel to those areas to observe solar eclipses.
The 1999 total eclipse in Europe helped to increase public awareness of the incident, as illustrated by the number of journeys made specifically to witness the 2005 annular eclipse and the 2006 total eclipse. The recent solar eclipse of January 26, 2009 was an annular eclipse, while the solar eclipse of July 22, 2009 was a total solar eclipse.
In ancient times, and in some cultures today, solar eclipses have been attributed to supernatural causes. Total solar eclipses can be frightening for people who are unaware of their astronomical explanation, as the Sun seems to disappear in the middle of the day and the sky darkens in a matter of minutes.
There are four types of solar eclipses:
- A total eclipse occurs when the Sun is completely covered by the Moon. The intensely bright disk of the Sun is replaced by the dark outline of the Moon, and the much fainter corona is visible. During any one eclipse, totality is visible only from at most a narrow track on the surface of the Earth.
- An annular eclipse occurs when the Sun and Moon are exactly in line, but the apparent size of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun. Hence the Sun appears as a very bright ring, or annulus, surrounding the outline of the Moon.
- A hybrid eclipse (also called annular / total eclipse) transitions between a total and annular eclipse. At some points on the surface of the Earth it is visible as a total eclipse, whereas at others it is annular. Hybrid eclipses are comparatively rare.
- A partial eclipse occurs when the Sun and Moon are not exactly in line and the Moon only partially obscures the Sun. This phenomenon can usually be seen from a large part of the Earth outside of the track of an annular or total eclipse. However, some eclipses can only be seen as a partial eclipse, because the umbra never intersects the Earth’s surface.
The match between the apparent sizes of the Sun and Moon during a total eclipse is a coincidence. The Sun’s distance from the Earth is about 400 times the Moon’s distance, and the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times the Moon’s diameter.
The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is an ellipse, as it is the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the apparent sizes of the Sun and Moon therefore differ. The magnitude of an eclipse is the ratio of the apparent size of the Moon to the apparent size of the Sun during an eclipse. An eclipse when the Moon is near its closest distance from the Earth can be a total eclipse because the Moon will appear to be large enough to cover completely the Sun’s bright disk, or photosphere, a total eclipse has a magnitude greater than 1. Alternatively, an eclipse when the Moon is near its farthest distance from the Earth can only be an annular eclipse because the Moon will appear to be slightly smaller than the Sun; the magnitude of an annular eclipse is less than 1. Slightly more solar eclipses are annular than total because, on average, the Moon lies too far from Earth to cover the Sun completely. A hybrid eclipse occurs when the magnitude of an eclipse transitions during the event from smaller than one to larger than one or vice versa so the eclipse appears to be total at some locations on Earth and annular at other locations.
The Earth’s orbit around the Sun is also elliptical, so the Earth’s distance from the Sun varies throughout the year. This also affects the apparent sizes of the Sun and Moon, but not so much as the Moon’s varying distance from the Earth. When the Earth approaches its farthest distance from the Sun in July, this tends to favor a total eclipse. As the Earth approaches its closest distance from the Sun in January, this tends to favor an annular eclipse.
Total solar eclipses are rare events. Although they occur somewhere on Earth every 18 months on average, it has been estimated that they happen again at any given place only once every 370 years, on average. The total eclipse only lasts for a few minutes at that location, as the Moon’s umbra moves eastward at over 1700 km/h. Totality can never last more than 7 min 31 s, and is usually much shorter: during each millennium there are typically fewer than 10 total solar eclipses exceeding 7 minutes. The last time this happened was June 30, 1973 (7 min 3 sec). Observers aboard a Concorde aircraft were able to stretch totality to about 74 minutes by flying along the path of the Moon’s umbra. The next eclipse exceeding seven minutes in duration will not occur until June 25, 2150. The longest total solar eclipse during the 8,000 year period from 3000 BC to 5000 AD will occur on July 16, 2186, when totality will last 7 min 29 s. For comparison, the longest eclipse of the 21st century will occur on July 22, 2009 and last 6 min 39 sec.
Spectacular solar eclipses are an extreme rarity within the universe at large. They are seen on Earth because of a fortuitous combination of circumstances that are statistically very improbable. Even on Earth, spectacular eclipses of the type familiar to people today are a temporary phenomenon. Many millions of years in the past, the Moon was too close to the Earth to precisely occult the Sun as it does during eclipses today; and many millions of years in the future, it will be too far away to do so.
Due to tidal acceleration, the orbit of the Moon around the Earth becomes approximately 3.8 cm more distant each year. It is estimated that in 600 million years, the distance from the Earth to the Moon will have increased by 23,500 km, meaning that it will no longer be able to completely cover the Sun’s disk. This will be true even when the Moon is at perigee, and the Earth at aphelion.
A complicating factor is that the Sun will increase in size over this timescale. This makes it even more unlikely that the Moon will be able to cause a total eclipse. Therefore the last total solar eclipse on Earth will occur in slightly less than 600 million years. This Article Provided by
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