May 30, 2003

Solar Eclipse

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Alaska, most of Europe and Asia, parts of Canada. These are the places to be on Saturday, May 31st, to see the first solar eclipse of 2003.




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May 30, 2003: Total eclipses of the sun are breathtaking, jaw-dropping. Many people who feel the cool sweep of the moon's shadow for the first time and witness the sun's ghostly corona go on to become world-traveling eclipse chasers. A total eclipse can change your life.


Partial eclipses, on the other hand, are just plain fun.

Right: Chris Go of the Philippines took this picture of the partially eclipsed sun on June 10, 2002. [more]

During a partial eclipse the moon never completely covers the Sun. The sky never darkens. The corona never appears. But something wonderful does happen. Little crescents pop up everywhere.




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Look under a tree. Sunlight beaming through gaps in the leaves make crescent-shaped spots on the ground. Look around the walls of your home or office. You might see some crescents projected by slits in the window shades. Windows with cut glass are better yet. Their prism-like corners bend sunlight and cast rainbow-colored crescents in unexpected places--perfect for a treasure hunt.

Sky watchers in Alaska, parts of Canada, most of Europe and Asia can hunt for crescents on May 31st (UT) when the Moon glides in front of the Sun for nearly two hours. It's the first solar eclipse of 2003.

The coming eclipse is partial, not total, which means the moon will never completely cover the sun. How much of the sun disappears depends on where you live. In Stockholm, for instance, the coverage will be nearly complete--about 85%. The crescent there will be slender. In Anchorage only about 50% of the sun will be covered. The crescent will be fat. Click here to view eclipse maps and timetables for hundreds of cities.


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Above: Science@NASA readers captured these pictures of crescent-shaped sunbeams during a partial solar eclipse on June 10, 2002. [more]

Europe, Canada and Alaska are good places to be because the eclipse occurs at special times: In Europe the event happens at sunrise (Saturday morning, May 31st); in Alaska and Canada at sunset (Friday evening, May 30th). Sunrises and sunsets are lovely enough when the sun is round. They can be as magical as a total eclipse when the sun is a crescent.

Warning: Although the sun might seem dim and safe to look at when it hangs low over the horizon, it is still dangerous. Staring at the sun with the unaided eye is almost sure to cause eye damage. Even a brief glimpse of the sun through unfiltered telescopes or binoculars will blind you. Always use proper filters or safe solar projection techniques.

In a polar region of Earth spanning parts of Greenland, all of Iceland, and the northern tip of Scotland, this eclipse will be annular. At the moment of maximum eclipse, the moon will lie dead center in front of the sun, yet it won't completely cover it. The bright surface of the sun will stick out all around the moon's limb. Instead of a crescent, the sun will look like a fiery ring.


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Above: A partial solar eclipse will be visible on May 31st from places bounded by the red lines. The pink D-shaped region shows where people can see an annular eclipse. [more]

Astronomers have taken many pictures of annular eclipses through safely-filtered telescopes. They're lovely. More rare, perhaps, would be a photo of a ring-shaped sunbeam filtering through the branches of a leafy tree. Or a rainbow-colored ring cast by the bevels of a cut-glass window.

Projected images of the sun are more than just a safe way to watch our star. They're art. They bend around corners, stretch across tables. They dance beneath trees when the wind blows.

Curiously, humans have built-in solar projectors: hands and fingers. Lay one hand atop the other, crisscrossing your fingers waffle-style. Leave enough space between your digits to form a grid of square-ish holes. You can cast an array of sun images on almost anything: dogs, kids, walls. Let your imagination be your guide.

And have fun. It's just a partial eclipse, after all.

Visit NASA's Eclipse Home Page for more information about this and other solar eclipses. will display pictures of the eclipse on May 31st and during the week that follows.




Web Links

The Solar Eclipse of May 31, 2003 (NASA/GSFC) -- maps, timetables and observing tips; See also

Solar Pinholes (Science@NASA) -- Human hands, leafy trees, wicker baskets and mirrors: these things can serve as safe solar projectors thanks to the curious wave behavior of light.

Never look directly at the sun! use safe solar projection methods instead.

Solar Eclipse Photo Galleries -- ( June 10, 2003; Dec. 14, 2001; Dec. 25, 2000. Want to take your own photos? Check out these solar eclipse photo tips.

Ring of Fire (APOD) -- an extraordinary picture of an annular eclipse.


Annular vs. Total Eclipses: Lovely solar eclipses are possible because of a lucky coincidence. Although the Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon, it is also about 400 times farther away. From our point of view, the Sun and the Moon seem to be the same size: 0.5 degrees wide -- but not always! The Moon's orbit around our planet is an ellipse, not a circle, so the width of the Moon waxes and wanes each month by 7%. Earth's orbit around the Sun is elliptical, too. The angular diameter of the Sun varies by 2% throughout the year. When the Moon happens to be the same size as or bigger than the Sun, total eclipses are possible. When the Moon is smaller, eclipses can be only annular or partial. On May 31, 2003, the Moon will be smaller than the Sun, and the maximum eclipse will be annular.



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