Watching the Solar Phenomenon: The Science of a Solar Eclipse!

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A total solar eclipse occurred over the northeastern Australian coast early in the morning of November 14  (yesterday afternoon for the United States & last night for those in Europe). Clueless about this spectacular astronomical event? No worries, we’ve got you covered. We’re here to explain what causes this remarkable act of nature, what sky-gazers see and how those outside of Australia can join in the experience. 

What exactly is a total solar eclipse?

A solar eclipse happens when the moon, as it orbits Earth, passes directly in front of the sun, obscuring its rays and casting a shadow on Earth’s surface. Sometimes referred to as a “happy accident of nature,” a total solar eclipse occurs when the moon is perfectly aligned with both the sun and Earth, so it appears from our perspective that the sun is completely blocked. 

When is this happening and who can see it?

A rare, complete solar eclipse dominated the northern Australian skyline on Wednesday, shrouding part of the country in complete darkness. It was the first such eclipse in Australia in 10 years and the last one expected until 2028. And the moment was almost ruined, as dark clouds hovered over the horizon in the days leading up to the eclipse. 

It estimated to take about three hours for the moon’s shadow to travel the entire path of totality. A total eclipse of the sun can only be seen from within what’s known as the path of totality, a narrow path the moon’s inner shadow travels as it glides across the Earth. The most populated areas within that path are in the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region. What time total darkness occurred, and how long it lasted, depended on location.  Totality of the 95-mile shadow began just after dawn and lasted for about two minutes, with a partial eclipse being visible from as far away as east Indonesia and southern parts of Chile. 

In Australia, the eclipse brought out fleets of spectators seeking unique vantage points, with an estimated 40 hot-air balloons filling the sky and a flotilla of cruise ships, sailboats and yachts staking out viewing points near the Great Barrier Reef, according to An estimated 50,000 spectators were reported to have traveled to Australia to view the eclipse, according to estimates, with hotels saying they had been booking reservations for more than three years.

What’s all the fuss about? Don’t these happen frequently?

According to NASA, a full solar eclipse happens, on average, every 18 months. The last one happened in July 2010, crossing Chile’s Easter Island, and one will occur over equatorial Africa in November 2014. But for any given region, a total solar eclipse only happens, on average, once every 375 years. 

Solar eclipses were shrouded in superstition in ancient times — in China, for example, viewing total solar eclipses was important for divining the future success of an emperor. However, as scientific knowledge deepened, these events became opportunities for conducting important experiments. It was during a total solar eclipse in 1919 that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was tested and confirmed for the first time.

A solar eclipse is often described as one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events. Some people are so moved by the experience of watching an eclipse that they travel around the world chasing them.

What’s it like to experience a solar eclipse and what do you see?

About an hour leading up to totality, all sorts of things begin to happen. There are changes in the color of the sky, the temperature drops, birds and animals behave in a peculiar manner and shadows sharpen, according to Rick Brown, an eclipse chaser from New York who is viewing his 14th total solar eclipse. “I never really expected to be moved the way I was. It’s a phenomenal thing to see,” he said, recalling his first experience. 

As the moon’s shadow sweeps across the Earth, the sun turns into a crescent in the sky. Just before totality, so-called Baily’s beads — bright spots of sunlight shining through the moon’s craggy surface — can appear around the moon. Then the moon completely blots out the sun, leaving only a halo of light visible. After the brief period of darkness, Baily’s beads might appear again as the sun comes back into view.

I missed it. Where can I see this eclipse?

You can watch the video in a time-lapsed format on several sites across the web. Check out this video of the entire eclipse event. 

On Twitter, there was a tweet-up devoted to the event and you can always get first-hand accounts of the event on iReport, where we asked people to share their solar eclipse photos and experiences.

Do I need special glasses to watch a solar eclipse? 

Yes! Permanent eye damage can occur if you look directly at the sun. That means when viewing any partial phase of a total eclipse, you need to wear proper solar eclipse glasses. Regular sunglasses won’t offer enough protection, and forget about using telescopes or binoculars unless you’ve attached special filters to them. Only during totality can you remove filters and glasses. If you’re feeling crafty, you can create your own pinhole projector.

Want to learn more about the solar eclipse? has an entire website dedicated to the solar eclipse phenomenon.  

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