Longest Solar Eclipse of the 21st Century
July 20, 2009:One one-thousand, 2 one-thousand, 3 one-thousand, 4 one-thousand...
Continue counting and don't stop until you reach 399 one-thousand.
Did that feel like a long time? Six minutes and 39 seconds to be exact. That's the duration of this week's total solar eclipse--the longest of the 21st century.
The event begins at the crack of dawn on Wednesday, July 22nd, in the Gulf of Khambhat just east of India. Morning fishermen will experience a sunrise like nothing they've ever seen before. Rising out of the waves in place of the usual sun will be an inky-black hole surrounded by pale streamers splayed across the sky. Sea birds will stop squawking, unsure if the day is beginning or not, as a strange shadow pushes back the dawn and stirs up a breeze of unaccustomed chill.
Right: A totally eclipsed sunrise in Antarctica. Credit and Copyright: Fred Bruenjes of moonglow.net. [more]
Most solar eclipses produce this sort of surreal experience for a few minutes at most. The eclipse of July 22, 2009, however, will last as long as 6 minutes and 39 seconds in some places, not far short of the 7 and a half minute theoretical maximum. It won't be surpassed in duration until the eclipse of June 13, 2132.
From the Gulf of Khambhat, the Moon's shadow will race east across India, China, and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. Click on the image to launch an animated map:
The path of totality cuts across many large cities. The shadow will linger over Shanghai, the largest city in China, for six full minutes, giving 20 million residents a lengthy and stunning view of the sun's ghostly corona. Other large cities in the path of totality include Surat, Vadodara, Bhopal, Varanasi, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Hefei, Hangzhou. The population of each numbers in the millions, making this possibly the best-observed solar eclipse in human history.
The leisurely pace of the eclipse could have a transformative effect on witnesses. Total eclipses have been known to turn ordinary folk into life-long "eclipse-chasers" willing to spend thousands of dollars and travel tens of thousands of miles to feel the Moon's cool shadow and behold the sun's pale atmosphere just one more time. A few extra minutes of wonder will intensify this effect to an unknown degree.
Live webcasts of the eclipse--not the next best thing to being there, but the only substitute available to many readers--may be found at the website of the San Francisco Exploratorium. Broadcasts commence at 9 p.m. EDT on July 21st (0100 UT on July 22nd).
Let the counting begin.
NASA's Solar Eclipse Home Page -- maintained by Fred Espenak of the Goddard Space Flight Center
Total Solar Eclipse of July 22, 2009 -- complete details from NASA
Animated Eclipse Maps -- (ShadowAndSubstance.com)
NASA's Future:US Space Exploration Policy