What causes total solar eclipses and how often do they occur?

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Eclipses are caused by an amazing cosmic coincidence i.e. the Moon appears as big as the Sun

Chauncey Bush/The Albuquerque Journal via AP

People travel thousands of miles to see the eclipse. There is nothing like the darkness under the umbrella and the excitement rising in the crowd. A total solar eclipse will soon grace the skies over parts of Central and North America, with a partial eclipse of the Sun being visible in some locations outside the path of totality. So now’s a good time to ask: What exactly is a solar eclipse?

When one celestial body is obscured from view by another object moving in between, astronomers refer to the phenomenon as an “obscuring event”. Technically, a total solar eclipse is the eclipse of the Sun by the Moon.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon and Sun line up exactly, causing the Moon to be in front of the Sun and blocking almost all of its light. When viewed from the path of totality – the expanse of Earth that will see the total eclipse – the Sun nearly disappears. This part of the eclipse can last for 7.5 minutes. The eclipse of April 8 will last for 4 minutes and 27 seconds.

What is the cause of solar eclipse?

There are several types of solar eclipses, but each occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun, blocking some or all of its light when viewed from a specific part of the planet. By sheer coincidence, the Moon and the Sun appear to be the same size in the sky because the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is about 400 times farther away. When the two line up perfectly during a new moon phase – when the Moon comes between the Earth and the Sun – the Moon can block out all of the Sun’s light. This is a total solar eclipse.

During a solar eclipse, two shadows of the Moon are formed. The central part of the shadow, where light does not reach, is called penumbra. Outer partial shade is known as penumbra; Only light from part of the Sun’s disk can reach here. During a total eclipse, the path of totality is the stretch of land within the penumbra. On April 8, the path will be 185 kilometers wide, stretching across North America from Mexico to the US and Canada. But the path of totality could be as narrow as 150 kilometers. The penumbra covers a much larger area, and viewers in those locations will be able to see a partial solar eclipse.

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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

How many types of solar eclipse are there?

A partial eclipse occurs when the Moon blocks a portion of the Sun’s light. This occurs when the audience is within the penumbra. Before and after a total eclipse, viewers can see the Moon slowly encroaching on the Sun in a partial eclipse. But there are times when only a partial eclipse is visible from anywhere on Earth because the central shadow of the Moon completely misses our planet.

An annular solar eclipse occurs when the Moon’s elliptical orbit takes it further away from Earth than normal, so it obscures most of the Sun’s light but produces what is known as a ring of fire. A hybrid eclipse occurs when a total eclipse is visible in some parts of the world, but an annular eclipse is visible in other parts. Total, hybrid, and annular eclipses are all types of “central” eclipses, meaning the shadow falls somewhere on Earth.

ER8EXD Solar eclipse.  The Moon is rotating in front of the Sun.  illustration

solar eclipse 2024

On April 8, a total solar eclipse will pass over Mexico, America and Canada. Our special series covers everything you need to know, from how and when to see it to some of the strangest eclipse experiences in history.

How often do solar eclipses occur?

Every year somewhere between two and five solar eclipses are visible around the world. A total solar eclipse occurs on average every 18 months. But for any given location on the planet, a total eclipse of the Sun is seen only about every 400 years, because the part of the Earth from which each total eclipse is visible is so small.

What is lunar eclipse?

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow into space. These events always occur during the full phase of the Moon, when the Moon is on the opposite side of the planet from the Sun. But this does not happen every full moon, because our Moon’s orbit around Earth is inclined compared to Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

Do eclipses always come in pairs?

Since eclipses occur when Earth and the Sun and Moon line up – called a symbiosis – a solar eclipse is always accompanied by a lunar eclipse, either two weeks before or after. This year, a lunar eclipse will occur on March 24, two weeks before the solar eclipse on April 8. But this will be a penumbral lunar eclipse, meaning only the Earth’s outer shadow will obscure the Moon.


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