Lecture 9: Eclipses of the Sun & Moon

Key Ideas:

Lunar Eclipses Solar Eclipses The Eclipse Year

Umbra and Penumbra

Because the Sun appears as a disk ~1/2 across, Sun shadows are fuzzy rather than sharp. As a consequence, the shadows cast by the Earth & Moon have two parts:

(Click on the image to view at full scale [Size: 10Kb])

Umbra: Inner core of total darkness
The disc of the Sun is completely blocked.
Penumbra: Outer, partial shadow
Sun's disc is only partly blocked, with a bit peeking over the edge.

Lunar Eclipses

Lunar Eclipses are when the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth.

They only occurs during Full Moon when the Earth is between the Moon and the Sun.

The Earth's umbra is ~1.4 Million km long:

Earth's umbra is not totally dark because of light scattered by the Earth's transparent atmosphere. This gives the fully eclipsed Moon a slightly ruddy appearance (think about how the Sun looks reddish at sunset or sunrise).

Three Types of Lunar Eclipses

(Click on the image to view at full scale [Size: 10Kb])

Total Lunar Eclipse:

Partial Lunar Eclipse:

Penumbral Eclipse:

Because the Moon can be completely immersed in the Earth's umbra during a total lunar eclipse, these eclipses can be seen from the entire night-time hemisphere. This is in contrast to total solar eclipses as we'll see below.

Solar Eclipses

Solar Eclipses occur when the Earth passes through the shadow of the Moon.

They only occurs during New Moon when the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun.

The Moon's umbra is only 380,000 km long:

This means that Solar Eclipses can be seen only where the shadow passes overhead.

Types of Solar Eclipses

(Click on the image to view at full scale [Size: 10Kb])

Total Solar Eclipse:

Partial Solar Eclipse:

Annular Eclipse:

Total Solar Eclipses

Total Solar Eclipses are localized and short: While we often sketch the penumbra as uniform, in reality the penumbra shades gradually from the completely dark umbra out towards the edges. The reason is simple: as you move outwards away from the edge of the umbra, you will see an increasing fraction of the Sun peeking out from behind the Moon. There is a very nice Mir image of the 1999 Aug 11 eclipse shadow showing what I mean.

Why are eclipses rare?

If the Moon's orbit were exactly aligned with the Ecliptic, we would see

But, this clearly does not happen. Why?

Eclipses only occur when the line of nodes and the Sun line up during Full Moon or New Moon.

(Click on the image to view at full scale [Size: 9Kb])

Eclipse Year

The Line of Nodes align with the Sun every 346.6 days. This is called the "Eclipse Year".

But, it must be a Full or New Moon when the nodes line up to have an eclipse. This happens only very rarely.

From a given location on the Earth you see

Upcoming Eclipses

Next Total Lunar Eclipses:
2007 Mar 3, visible from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa
Last one was 2004 Oct 28, visible from North & South America

Next Total Solar Eclipse:
2008 August 1, visible from Greenland, Arctic, Siberia, Mongolia and China

Next Total Solar Eclipse near Columbus:
2024 April 8, totality crosses north & west of Columbus.

The next Total Solar Eclipse visible from Columbus proper will be on 2099 Sept 14.
A great source of information on upcoming eclipses (and eclipses in general) is Fred Espenak's Eclipse Home Page at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

To get a preview of the path of the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse, I've prepared this 5.5Mb QuickTime Movie of the 2024 April 8 Total Solar Eclipse Track. Beware before loading: it's a big file! Only try this if you have a fast broadband connection (cable or DSL).

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Updated: 2006 September 10
Copyright Richard W. Pogge, All Rights Reserved.