An annular eclipse was seen by earthly observers who were lucky enough to be in southern Africa on Thursday. The best views were about a 10-hour drive south of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, according to Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer at Williams College Massachusetts. He traveled to an island east of Madagascar called Réunion to witness the moment in which the moon came between the Earth and the sun, producing a brilliant ring of fire visible from some parts surrounding the southern Indian Ocean, as reported by Space.com.
The event took about 10 hours. At the end, the moon covered 97 percent of the sun’s disk. This moment occurred at 9:08 a.m. local time. People around the world who could not make it out to this part of the globe were able to either track the natural show of heavenly bodies from NASA’s interactive Google map or stay connected to see details and predictions on Eclipsewise.com and other sites.
Annular Vs. total eclipses
Because the moon does not move in a perfect circle around us and is more like an ellipsis, it is not always equidistant from the Earth, as explained by Pasachoff. Sometimes it is closer, sometimes it is farther away. The moon is now a little farther, which explains why it looks smaller and failed to completely cover the sun’s disk yesterday. That is what an annular eclipse means. Observers were amazed by the ring of sunlight the event created, though.
In contrast, a total solar eclipse occurs when the moon lines up perfectly with Earth’s parent star and blocks out all light. One annular eclipse and one total solar eclipse take place somewhere on Earth every 18 months. Because the moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees compared to Earth’s orbit, such events do not happen every time the moon passes between the Earth and the sun.
The next time the moon will partially obscure the face of the sun will be February 26, 2017. This annular eclipse will be seen by observers who are off the eastern coast of South America and some parts of Africa. Passachoff will be traveling to Chile to watch the event. And the next total solar eclipse will occur months later on Aug. 21 and people across the United States will be able to view it. A highly anticipated show, it is being called the Great American Eclipse.
Even though the moon is about 400 times smaller than the sun, it can completely cover the star’s disc in a total solar eclipse because it is about 400 times closer to the Blue Planet. Both heavenly bodies are arranged in such an amazing way that one is able to block out the other so humans can enjoy the otherworldly experience of watching eclipses.
“I think only dedicated amateur astronomers will be traveling like this for the annular eclipse,” as told to Space.com by Pasachoff. “It’s fun to do, but it’s not as dramatic [as a total eclipse]. But for the total eclipse, then we would like to encourage everybody to travel to try to get into that path of totality.”
Watching eclipses can be dangerous to the human eyes
A Space.com report highlights that it is important to take precautions for a safe skywatching event since looking directly at the sun can lead to blindness and permanent eye damage even during something apparently harmful as an annular eclipse. Using special protective glasses can help avoid damage and observers must take into account that basic sunglasses do not provide sufficient protection.
Those viewers engaged in the documentation of the event can take advantage of special solar filters they can add to their equipment to make sure the remaining ring of sunlight does not touch their vision. Space.com recommends using a simple wide-angle snap to capture the moment and its article notes that using a pinhole camera that can be easily made at home can provide a safe way to observe the show indirectly.
Eclipses from artists’ perspective across history
Thousands of myths about the nature of eclipses have existed across history. The Chinese used to believe that eclipses were a result of an event in which a sky dragon dined on the sun, while the Inca on the other side of the world spread a tale about a jaguar that represented a hungry beast dining on our parent star.
During the Middle Ages, people in Western Europe believed either that eclipses expressed religious experiences or that the events were signs of scientific facts.
Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum in London, told The Atlantic that the first artists that represented Christianity through their work showed eclipses in scenes related to Jesus’ crucifixion as a way to say the event came as a consequence of God’s anger and the universe’s collective grief.
The thought might make some sense given that such an explanation is clearly written in the Gospels.
“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” Luke 23: 44-45.
Regardless of culture and religion, eclipses continue to be astonishing spectacles. Blatchford said that a recent search into the museum’s collections for representations of eclipses made him realize the artist’s ability to capture the ephemeral moment without using a camera.
“When an eclipse happens, you only have a tiny amount of time to observe what’s going on. But of course artists have a great skill of absorbing everything,” he said, as quoted by The Atlantic.