Less Than Five Episode 02 – Total Solar Eclipse Explained

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After a long wait, we are now less than a year away from the next total solar eclipse, happening on August 21, 2017. News networks, social media, museums and more are slowly beginning to flood with stories. However, many of us might find ourselves asking, “what is a total solar eclipse?” Astronimate is here to simplify this question in Total Solar Eclipse Explained!

Total Solar Eclipse Explained: Simple definition

In short, a total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon orbits between the Sun and Earth. As a result, the Moon blocks some- or all of the Sun’s light from hitting our humble little planet. In other words, the Moon casts its shadow on Earth during an eclipse. However, from different angles and circumstances, the Moon casts different types of shadows. In fact, in totally shadowed areas (discussed more below) an eclipse can cause nighttime darkness during daytime!

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COOL FACT!

The Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon, but it’s also exactly 400 times farther away. This coincidence allows total solar eclipses to happen!

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Total Solar Eclipse Explained: Umbra

total solar eclipse explained penumbra

When the Moon orbits between Earth and the Sun, the darkest, most shadowed area is known as the umbra. In these locations, the Sun’s light is completely blocked from hitting Earth. As a result, a true total solar eclipse occurs.

Lasting for only a few precious minutes, the umbra often creates complete darkness, even during the daytime. Our Moon blocks the brightest layer of the Sun, the photosphere, leaving only the rarely-seen corona. As a result, an ethereal white crown-like structure glows dimly around the Moon’s dark body.

Astronimate explains the layers of the Sun in this video!

Total Solar Eclipse Explained: Path of totality

Furthermore, as the Moon continues moving in its orbit, the umbra’s shadow moves across Earth. Therefore, the umbra’s path across Earth is known as the path of totality. Ultimately, the path of totality is where fanatics want to be during a total eclipse for the ultimate observing opportunities!

However, the path of totality is only around 100 miles wide, and covers only around 1% of the Earth’s surface. Consequently, places within the path of totality become extremely popular during total solar eclipses. In fact, hotels, camping sites and more become booked months, or years before the eclipse occurs!

Find out if your town falls within the path of totality using this official eclipse2017.org site!

Total Solar Eclipse Explained: Penumbra

total solar eclipse explained penumbra

On the other hand, the outer shadow of the Moon during an eclipse is known as the penumbra. This shadow occurs in locations where the Earth, Moon and the Sun are not perfectly aligned.  As a result, locations falling within the Moon’s penumbra will only experience a partial solar eclipse, or penumbral eclipse.

While still a sensational sight to see, partial solar eclipses allow some of the Sun’s light to hit Earth. Because of this, viewing partial solar eclipses can be much trickier, and more dangerous as well (read below)!

Total Solar Eclipse Explained: How to observe 

Indeed, total solar eclipses often completely block the Sun’s light. However, observing a total solar eclipse can still be very dangerous. Our Sun is a gigantic factory of nuclear fusion, deadly radiation and the solar system’s most hostile environments. In other words, not a nice place!

Does this seem like something you want to look directly in the eye? SPOILER ALERT: nope!

sun solar flare picture

Photo: NASA/SDO

For this reason, places all over the world sell special solar glasses to safely look at the Sun. Not to mention, these glasses are very inexpensive and easy to obtain. In fact, a 5-pack of solar eclipse glasses costs under $20!

On the other hand, true enthusiasts may want a better look! Several models of solar telescope exist. However, these telescopes come with a much larger price tag, often in the thousands! For this reason, many people will borrow, or even rent a solar telescope.

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