THINGS THAT MAKE A SOLAR ECLIPSE FASCINATING!!
by Paul D. Maley
I cannot tell you how many times I get questions from new tour participants and the press about why we go to view solar eclipses, especially total solar eclipses. Is it really worth traveling thousands of miles and spending thousands of US dollars for such an experience? After all, when you see photos printed in media they generally look the same—the Sun either partially eclipsed or fully eclipsed surrounded by its atmosphere (corona) with perhaps foreground images of features you can recognize.
A total solar eclipse is so much more than this. Here is a list of possible features that you be on the lookout for either before, during or after the total eclipse process. The term ‘totality’ is used to mean only the period of time when the Moon fully blocks the Sun’s light:
a. the appearance of the planets Mercury, Venus and/or Jupiter even before the Sun is eclipsed
Mercury near the Sun
b. crescent images of the Sun projected through leaves in nearby trees onto the ground.
c. the approach (and recession) of the shadow of the Moon in the sky
The edge of the Moon’s shadow as totality begins.
d. lowering of the air temperature as the eclipse process advances
e. changes in flowers, plants, insects and spiders, birds, marine organisms, fish, and animal activity (e.g. captive chimpanzees) as a ‘sunset’ type environment occurs.
f. the appearance of Baily’s Beads — tiny points of light at the Sun/Moon tangent point seconds before and after ‘totality’.
g. appearance of the Sun’s outer atmosphere (the corona). The shape and size of the corona is different with every total eclipse.
h. appearance of bright stars/planets in the sky during totality
i. if there are clouds present particularly off in the distance, you may be able to see colorful sunset effects.
j. during the middle of ‘totality’ you can usually see all around the horizon a bright ring of light while the rest of the sky is dark. This bright area indicates places outside of totality where the eclipse is only partially eclipsed.
k. small red jets protruding from the edge of the Sun during totality. These are called prominences and are ejections of material from the Sun’s surface that appear suspended during totality. Best seen in binoculars.
l. reactions of people around you, especially those who have never seen a total eclipse. The sights and sounds and reactions can be really interesting.
m. the suspense and air of anticipation that comes with the presence of clouds near the Sun and whether or not the sky will actually be clear during totality.
n. presence or absence of shadow bands in the sky during the minutes prior to and after totality. These are faint waving bands of alternating contrast best seen on white surfaces when on the ground but the first image shows they can be photographed on cloud. They are reported most frequently at coastal observing locations in the presence of light low altitude cloud, but have been seen from airplanes (on the wings), at sea and at land locations.
Shadow bands in the sky
A drawing of shadow bands as seen on the front of a house.
o. the appearance of the ‘Diamond Ring’ before and after totality and just prior to/after the Baily’s Beads are seen. The diamond ring is an impression one gets of the way the Sun looks if there is a deep lunar valley just prior to the start and/or end of the total eclipse. It can last from one to 3 seconds generally.
p. the total solar eclipse lasts a very short time, often a minute or two, but the eclipse process usually spans several hours. It takes the Moon quite a while to move across the face of the Sun. This process can be seen safely only through special filters.
q. the entire visual experience is incomparable. It excites the senses! No video or photograph can mimic what your eyes can see. We always recommend that, especially for first time eclipse participants, that you do not attempt to waste any of the precious seconds of totality taking photos or recording it on video.
r. the ‘eclipse wind’ is a phenomenon that sometimes occurs as the Moon’s shadow passes over. The wind, which had been mostly calm , suddenly picks up and then begins to drop off after totality has ended.
s. the chromosphere is the 2nd of the 3 main layers in the Sun’s atmosphere and is about 2,000 km (1,200 mi) deep. It shows up briefly just before the start of totality and just before its end.
t. during totality one may be able to photograph (but likely not see) ‘earthshine’. This is the back of the Moon, so to speak, that is faintly illuminated by sunlight reflected from Earth in the direction of the Moon.
u. in the few seconds before/after totality there is an array of wavelengths of light dectable in the emissions from the limb of the Sun. When the upper layer of the Sun’s atmosphere (the photosphere) is occulted by the Moon, the layers of the Sun’s atmosphere flash into view, and the spectrum briefly shows the bright lines produced by tenuous hot luminous gas. Except during eclipses, this part of the spectrum is masked by the glare of the Sun’s disk.
More remotely visible celestial objects might be seen but there is no guarantee. On rare occasion a bright comet passing close to the Sun has been seen during a total eclipse. Also, from high latitude locations when solar activity is on the increase it ‘might’ be possible to see an aurora during totality. A very bright artificial Earth satellite could also be viewed perhaps during the partial eclipse phases (when the Sun is not completely eclipsed) but the satellite is illuminated enough by the Sun outside the Moon’s shadow.
RING OF FIRE EXPEDITIONS offers tours to new or remote destinations and places where tour participants can see unique sights and highlights of the country. The eclipse may be an excuse for people to combine a vacation with a total solar eclipse or to add to the count of the number of countries and passport stamps.
Whatever your motivation, the sights and experiences of a total solar eclipse are truly rare and wonderful!
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Ring of Fire Expeditions (ROFE) is the longest consecutive astronomical tour organization in the United States. ROFE specializes in astro-tourism since 1970 with expeditions organized and led by Paul D. Maley of the NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society and arranged by Future Travel in Houston, Texas USA. These include tours to observe such events as Halley’s Comet, the Leonid meteor shower, transit of Venus, spacecraft reentries, solar eclipses, grazing occultations, and occultations of stars by minor planets.
We are a public outreach effort of the NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society led by amateur astronomers and welcome all persons who are interested in astronomy and the natural sciences. You do not need to have a science background or any prior experience to join us! Contact us to set up your perfect astronomical tour and/or cruise today!