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eclipse from space

From space, the Moon’s shadow during a solar eclipse appears as a dark spot moving across the Earth. – NASA Earth Observatory

Get your t-shirts and protective eyewear because The Great American Solar Eclipse will arrive on Monday!

This Sea-To-Shining-Sea Solar Eclipse is rare in that it is visible across the country, although only total along a narrow path. The eclipse will begin over the Pacific Ocean at 8:46 am Pacific Time. Moving inland, it will reach the western border of Idaho at 10:10 am, Wyoming at 10:16 am, and Nebraska at 10:25 am local time. It will cross northeastern Kansas starting at 11:36 am local time), Missouri (11:46 am), southern Illinois (11:52 am), western Kentucky (11:56 am), Tennessee (11:58 am), northeastern Georgia (1:07 pm). It will pass over Charleston, South Carolina at 1:13 pm and then pass over the Atlantic Ocean.

Where I will be in New Jersey on Monday, which is north of the path of totality, the sun will appear partially eclipsed with about 73% of the sun being covered by the Moon which will still be an incredible sight. I will see the effect of the eclipse from 1:16 pm to 4:09 pm ET.

Here is a tool that will allow you to see how and when the eclipse will look based on your zip code.

The Moon will pass between Earth and the Sun, and blocking all direct sunlight. It will turn day into darkness in varying degrees depending on where you are viewing.

You probably have not seen a total solar eclipse if you have lived in the United States. The solar eclipses that were total in the past 100 years were either not visible here or only visible in a few locations.

But I certainly remember them occurring. One that stands out in my memory was on March 7, 1970. It wasn’t total where I was that day in New Jersey. From central Florida, the path went up the coast through Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  Two years later, Carly Simon referred to it in “You’re So Vain” when she sang  “You flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia – to see the total eclipse of the sun.”

If you are in the path of totality or off to the side and planning to watch the Sun, you will need eye protection. According to NASA, it is safe to look at a total solar eclipse with the naked eye only when the face of the sun is totally obscured by the Moon. Check out this article on for more information.

I am fascinated by the records of historical eclipses. They are often used to try to more accurately date events.

A solar eclipse of June 15, 763 BC mentioned in an Assyrian text is important for the Chronology of the Ancient Orient.

The ancients interpreted all eclipses, lunar or solar, as omens or portents. But the solar eclipses are certainly more dramatic and jarring and enter the mythology of many cultures.

Who was eating the Sun? In Vietnam, people believed that a solar eclipse was caused by a giant frog devouring the Sun. Norse cultures blamed wolves, in Korea it was dogs, and in ancient China, it was a celestial dragon. The Chinese word for an eclipse, chih or shih, means to eat.

In Hindu mythology, the deity Rahu is beheaded by the gods for capturing and drinking Amrita, the gods’ nectar. Rahu’s head flies off into the sky and swallows the Sun causing an eclipse.

Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse that occurred during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. Both sides put down their weapons and declared peace as a result of the eclipse. That exact eclipse remains uncertain, but a candidate is one on May 28, 585 BC.

Historians trying to establish the exact date of Good Friday have tried using the darkness described at Jesus’s crucifixion as a possible solar eclipse. This has not been successful since Good Friday is recorded as being at Passover, which is held at the time of a full moon and solar eclipses are connected to a New Moon like the one on Monday. Also, the Bible says that the darkness lasted from the sixth hour to the ninth, and three hours is way too long a time. Totality maxes out at about 8 minutes, although the partial darkness can last much longer.

We don’t have many reliable records of eclipses before 800 AD. The recording begins with Arab and monastic observations in the early medieval period.

The first recorded observation of the corona was made in Constantinople in 968 AD. The first known telescopic observation of a total solar eclipse was made in France in 1706. English astronomer Edmund Halley accurately predicted and observed the solar eclipse of May 3, 1715.

Black Sun

Totality’s end in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway – photo by György Soponyai via Flickr

The Black Sun was the name given to a solar eclipse in Mesoamerican mythology. It had mystical meanings and was connected to the god Quetzalcoatl and his entry into the Underworld. For these ancients, there were two suns, the young Day Sun and the ancient Dark Sun. Some scholars regard the mythological Black Sun not as not only a thing to fear, but as the ancient female origin of all. It is both tomb and womb and its oneness integrates death and the expectation of birth.

If you get to observe this solar eclipse in person, you’ll have something to tell the next generation. And you will be able to perhaps understand in some small way the wonder that must have filled ancient observers.

It is now a month until the total solar eclipse of 2017 (on August 21) when the Moon will completely block the sun. This rare event will be visible across the United States, though there is an actual line it will travel across the U.S.

Have you already seen a total solar eclipse? Probably not. Though some have occurred in the past 100 years, if you lived in the U.S. they were either not visible or only in a few locations. The last one was in 1991.  There are many kinds of eclipses – total , partial, annular etc.  I have written here about other solar and lunar eclipses. To witness a total solar eclipse means to see your piece of the world in darkness during daytime and feel the temperature dramatically drop.

The media is calling this the Great American Total Solar Eclipse (which sounds like a ride at an amusement park) but it will darken skies all the way from Oregon to South Carolina. The path of totality is about 70 miles (113 kilometers) wide. Don’t plan on driving along the path to follow the eclipse. It will move at about 1500 mph.

You may have seen stories in the media about the event and about towns that are planning celebrations  –  and booking accommodations, selling t-shirts, eye protection etc.  If you are in the path of totality, then you will need eye protection, and any viewers should use protection.

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, thereby totally or partially obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon’s apparent diameter is larger than the Sun, blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness.

Totality always occurs in a narrow path across the surface of the Earth for that portion of the planet in daylight.

In my neighborhood, there will not be totality but it will be 73% blocked. It will begin at 1:22 pm, peak at 2:44 pm and end at 4 pm.

Imagine the fear and confusion any eclipse must have created to the ancients. A total solar eclipse would be the most frightening of all eclipse.

John Fiske wrote back in 1872 in his book Myth and Myth-Makers that:

…the myth of Hercules and Cacus, the fundamental idea is the victory of the solar god over the robber who steals the light. Now whether the robber carries off the light in the evening when Indra has gone to sleep, or boldly rears his black form against the sky during the daytime, causing darkness to spread over the earth, would make little difference to the framers of the myth. To a chicken a solar eclipse is the same thing as nightfall, and he goes to roost accordingly. Why, then, should the primitive thinker have made a distinction between the darkening of the sky caused by black clouds and that caused by the rotation of the earth? He had no more conception of the scientific explanation of these phenomena than the chicken has of the scientific explanation of an eclipse. For him it was enough to know that the solar radiance was stolen, in the one case as in the other, and to suspect that the same demon was to blame for both robberies…


We entered 2017 with a nice pairing of the planets of love and war in the sky. Venus and Mars were close together all through January. The Moon was right there too as the year began and it will work its way back to the planets – at least in our view – as the month ends January 31.

But the major astronomical event of 2017 will be a total solar eclipse. We have not had a total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979.

It is two seasons away, but on August 21, 2017 the Moon will completely block the sun, and this solar eclipse can be seen across the United States.

But, you will have to be at the right place at the right time to see totality (when the sun is totally blocked by the moon). There is an area that is a narrow path about 75 miles wide between Oregon and South Carolina that will be prime viewing. You can view a detailed map of the eclipse online.  Perhaps, you should plan now for a little vacation in August to see the eclipse.

If that’s too far off to think about, or if you’re not ready to take an eclipse vacation, then here’s an alternative. On February 11, we will have a penumbral lunar eclipse. This is when the Moon enters the lighter shadow of the earth. But the effect is hard to notice and a lot less cool than the August event.

A total penumbral lunar eclipse dims the moon in direct proportion to the area of the Sun's disk blocked by the Earth. This comparison shows the southern shadow penumbral lunar eclipse of January 1999 (left) to the moon outside of the shadow (right) demonstrates this subtle dimming.

A total penumbral lunar eclipse dims the moon in direct proportion to the area of the Sun’s disk blocked by the Earth. This comparison shows the southern shadow penumbral lunar eclipse of January 1999 (left) to the moon outside of the shadow (right) demonstrates this subtle dimming.  Image via Wikipedia



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