Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon

This morning, many parts of the Earth (but not North America) were able to see an eclipse of the sun, and a lucky few people were able to see a total eclipse of the sun, where the moon blocked out the bright disk of the sun for nearly four minutes.

Total eclipses of the sun are rare, occuring about once every 1.6 years, and only visible from a thin ribbon of the Earth's surface. On average, every part of the Earth will see an eclipse every 300+ years, though sometimes a given spot may get lucky and see a total eclipse twice in a short span, or another spot may be unlucky and go for several centuries without an eclipse. During each total eclipse, much of the rest of the Earth can see a partial eclipse of the sun.

Yours truly tried to see a total eclipse from Germany in 1999. A friend and I traveled to Saarbrucken, on the border of Germany and France, and we climbed a small hill (I think the hill was actually in France) to watch with a crowd. We viewed the eclipse until it was about two-thirds of the way to totality (here is a picture I took through my telescope), a thunderstorm rolled in. We all got soaking wet but hoped for a break in the clouds. Unfortunately, at the exact time of totality, it was still cloudy. In a matter of a few seconds, it went from light to nearly dark, and two minutes later, the lights came up again, all while the sky was overcast. What a shame!

For those of us in the continental U.S., the next total solar eclipse on our soil will not be until August 21, 2017. Until then, you'll have to travel! The next total solar eclipse is not until August 1, 2008, and will only be visible if you are a polar bear, a Siberian, Mongolian, or visiting China.

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