Fire on high: An annular solar eclipse that only penguins might love

April 28
The sun is obscured by the moon during an annular solar eclipse in Tokyo May 21, 2012. (Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg)
The sun is obscured by the moon during an annular solar eclipse in Tokyo May 21, 2012. (Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg)

The quest for fire meets the march of the penguins.

In a kind of cosmic oddity, the annular solar eclipse late tonight – or more precisely tomorrow morning, Eastern time – can be seen by human eyes only in the remote reaches of Antarctica.  For this annular eclipse, noted likely by its short-lived “ring of fire,” may have but an audience of penguins, since humanity lacks representation.

This is the first solar eclipse of 2014. Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between Earth and the sun.  Total eclipses, which produce the “diamond ring” effect, happen when the moon is closer to Earth and precisely covers the sun. For annular eclipses, the moon is a tiny bit further from earth, but still fits within the sun’s disc and has a skosh more room. Thus a “ring of fire” forms around moon’s silhouette.

Video: Ring of Fire – May 10 2013 Annular Solar Eclipse, Pilbara, Western Australia

Ring of Fire - May 10 2013 Annular Solar Eclipse, Pilbara, Western Australia from Colin Legg on Vimeo.

The northern edge of the antumbral shadow – that portion of the Moon’s shadow that extends beyond the umbra – first touches Antarctica at 1:57 a.m. Eastern time (5:57 Universal Time).  Greatest eclipse is at 2:03 a.m. Eastern time, according to retired NASA eclipse expert Fred Espenak.  At that point the sun appears on the Antarctic horizon for a 49-second annular phase. At 2:09 a.m. Eastern time, the shadow leaves Earth’s surface and the annular eclipse ends.

Link: Path of eclipse (PDF)

But … you can view the partial phases

You can view the partial eclipse phases from Australia live from the comfort of your home computer at Slooh.com.

Coverage begins tonight at 2 a.m. Eastern, as the live image stream with discussions led by Slooh host Geoff Fox, with expertise from astronomer Paul Cox and solar researcher Lucie Green. Ask questions during the webcast by using hashtag #Slooh

The Slooh webcast is also available via YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/embed/h342KVTsQMg

A non-central rarity

Espenak says this eclipse is unusual “because the central axis of the Moon’s antumbral shadow misses Earth entirely while the shadow edge grazes the planet.”

In other words, the central axis just missed landing on Earth, or as a baseball broadcaster might explain, the shadow “is a just a bit outside.”  In simple terms, this is a non-central annular eclipse. During the 5,000-year period from 2000 B.C. to 3000 AD, the earth only sees 68 non-central versions out of 3,956 annular eclipses, according to Espenak.

A family affair

Every eclipse, whether lunar or solar, belongs to a “saros” – or family of eclipses.  After a series of partial solar eclipses for solar Saros 148, dating back to Sept. 21, 1653, the penguins get to witness live the first annular eclipse of the series. From this series, the next eclipse (annular, again) will take place in May 2032.

In May 2068, Earth can enjoy the first total eclipse from Saros 148 and that eclipse will be first of 39 consecutive Saros 148 total solar eclipses – through Aug. 3, 2771.  That’s 703 years of total eclipses from one eclipse family.  The saros ends Dec. 12, 2987.

Out of 75 eclipses in this family, this eclipse is the only non-central annular.

Eye safety

NASA offers instructions on eye safety during solar eclipses: Eye safety during solar eclipses

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Jason Samenow · April 28