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  • Live Discussion on the Eclipse: Aug. 10, 1 p.m. EDT

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  • Millions Hope to View Solar Eclipse (Aug. 10)

  • Crossing the Globe to Watch Dusk Fall Twice (Aug. 8)

  • England Prepares for Eclipse (Aug. 1)

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  •   The Millennium's Last Total Eclipse of the Sun

    On Wednesday, Aug. 11, a total eclipse of the sun will be seen along a diagonal swath of the Eastern Hemisphere – starting at the southwest tip of England at 11:11 a.m., traveling through the Middle East, and ending in the Bay of Bengal off India. Some 2 billion people in 13 countries are in the path to witness the event, the last total solar eclipse of the millennium.

    Millions of spectators are expected to gather along the eclipse route. Above them, two chartered Concordes, their passengers paying $2,400 each, will pursue the eclipse in the air. Experts say witnesses on the ground will experience a spectacular rushing wall of darkness, gusting winds and an unearthly silence as birds and other animals are tricked into believing it is night. When England experienced its last total solar eclipse, on June 29, 1927, Virginia Woolf wrote afterward: "We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no color. The earth was dead."

    Facts About the Solar Eclipse

    Q: What causes a total solar eclipse?
    This occurs when the moon crosses between the Earth and the sun, blocking the sun's light as the Earth falls under the moon's shadow. Although the moon is only one-400th the size of the sun, it can block the sun the same way a penny held near the eye can block out a entire building down the street. Eclipses occur about every six months, but most of them are partial.

    lebanon eclipse/ap
    Men in south Lebanon try on the eye protection mask usually worn by metal welders in preparation for Wednesday's eclipse. View a photo gallery on the eclipse. (AP)
    Q: What time does the eclipse begin?
    The total eclipse of the sun will first reach the southwest tip of England on Wednesday, Aug. 11, at 11:11 a.m. local time, or about 6:11 a.m. EDT.

    Q: What path will the eclipse follow?
    The eclipse will begin in the Atlantic and make its first landfall on the small island of Bryher, located in the Scilly Isles off the southwest tip of England. From there it will travel at more than 1,500 miles per hour over parts of France, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Black Sea, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India, before dying at evening in the Bay of Bengal.

    Q: What does a solar eclipse look like?
    Places in the path of the eclipse will begin to grow dark more than an hour before totality, as the moon nibbles at the sun's rim. Just before the sun is totally eclipsed, the light shining through the valleys along the moon's edge look like a celestial necklace, known as Baily's beads. This is soon reduced to what looks like a diamond ring.

    Then the sun is obscured, and its corona – a radiant halo of superheated gas that surrounds the sun – becomes visible and the stars appear in the sky as if it were nighttime.

    Q: When was the last total solar eclipse, and when will the next one occur?
    The last one took place on Feb. 26, 1998, and could be seen from the Galapagos Islands, parts of Ecuador and Colombia, and several Caribbean islands, including Aruba. The next total solar eclipse will occur on June 21, 2001, and will be seen in parts of South America and Africa.

    Q: What do scientists hope to learn from this eclipse?
    Scientists will be able to study the rarely sighted solar corona. For instance, they hope to find reasons why the corona burns at 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit despite the bitter cold of space. The temperature at the surface of the sun is about 11,000 degrees, and the sun's core has an estimated temperature of 27 million degrees.

    Scientists also hope to learn more about the gas explosions, which cause magnetic storms that can interfere with radio, TV and telephone signals on Earth and disrupt satellite communications.

    Sources: The Washington Post Company, the Associated Press, NASA.

    © 1999 Washington Post Newsweek Interactive

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