General Astronomy/Eclipses

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General Astronomy
Phases of the Moon Eclipses Daily Motions


An eclipse occurs when one casts a shadow on another object. A lunar eclipse happens when the shadow of the Earth falls on the Moon, because the Earth is in a position where it blocks the light from the Sun. Likewise, when the Moon interposes itself between the Earth and Sun, so that the Moon's shadow falls on the Earth (and the Sun is temporarily blocked from view), a solar eclipse is the result.

Eclipses occur when the Sun, Moon, and Earth align. An eclipse blocks sunlight headed toward either the Moon or the Earth, depending on whether the eclipse is a solar eclipse or a lunar eclipse. Such an alignment can only happen when the Moon is in new phase or full phase. If the Moon is new, then it's possible for a solar eclipse to occur. During a full moon, there might be a lunar eclipse. During a solar eclipse, the Moon's shadow falls on the Earth, and the Moon blocks the Earth's view of the Sun. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth's shadow falls on the Moon, and the Moon appears to be darkened as we see it from Earth.

As one of the rare and very spectacular celestial events, a solar eclipse is well worth seeing if you should ever have the opportunity. When viewing a solar eclipse, however, it is important that you avoid damage to your vision by taking steps to view the eclipse safely. (There is no danger in viewing a lunar eclipse, during which the observer never looks at the Sun.) The simplest way to view a solar eclipse is to project the sunlight through a pinhole onto a card or a sheet of paper. The sunlight on the paper will form an image of the Sun. As the eclipse progresses, you will see a round "bite" that the Moon's shadow has taken out of the Sun. If possible, you might also find a special filter, which you can look through directly to watch the eclipse. Solar filters make it possible to look directly at the Sun without harming your vision. Be sure to use a filter specifically designed for looking at the Sun — sunglasses, welder's glass, and other filters are generally not sufficient. Don't use a telescope or binoculars unless the filter was designed for that purpose. Even near totality, when the Sun is almost completely covered, you risk damage to your eyes by staring into the Sun. Once totality arrives, however, it is safe to look directly. It is also safe (though not advisable) to look for a brief moment at the uneclipsed Sun. When viewing an eclipse, there's no need to be paranoid about the danger of accidentally glimpsing the Sun's surface for a split second. If your eyes catch the bright surface of the Sun, simply turn your head away.

The shadow of the Earth on the Moon (or any shadow cast by the Sun) has two parts. The inner part of the shadow, called the umbra, is the darkest part. If you were to stand on the Moon under the umbra, your view of the Sun would be completely blocked. Under the outer part, the penumbra, the Sun is only partially blocked. This is why the Moon is more darkened under the umbra than under the penumbra. While the location of the boundary of the umbra and penumbra are precisely defined geometrically, there is no sharp shadow line between the two when looking at an eclipsed Moon. At the innermost part of the penumbra, only a tiny fraction of the sunlight reaches the Moon, and this part is almost as dark as the totally eclipsed umbra. During a solar eclipse, when the Moon's shadow falls on the Earth, we stand in the shadow rather than looking at it. Observers standing in the umbra see a total eclipse of the Sun, while observers under the penumbra see a partial eclipse.

The present average distance of the Moon from the Earth happens to be just right for the Sun and the Moon to have almost the same apparent size as viewed from Earth. The Sun is 400 times larger than the Moon, but it's 400 times farther from Earth. Because of this, the Moon can obscure the bright surface of the Sun while leaving the fainter outer part, called the corona, exposed. The result is dramatic. During a total solar eclipse, the seething outer layers of the Sun are visible around the Moon. An annular eclipse is possible when the Moon is near the most distant part of its orbit, a point called the apogee. In an annular eclipse, the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun but fails to block it completely, creating the appearance of a bright ring, or an annulus.

Since it's possible for an eclipse to occur twice a month, once of the Sun and once of the Moon, at each new and full moon, students often wonder why eclipses don't occur twice a month, each time the Moon passes through its new and full phase. Months often pass with neither a solar or lunar eclipse. Eclipses don't occur in these months because the Moon passes just north or south of the Earth's shadow during the full moon. Likewise, the Moon's shadow misses the Earth as it passes through new moon. This happens because the orbit of the Moon is not perfectly aligned with the Earth's orbit. The Moon's path is tilted 5° to the ecliptic. It only passes through the ecliptic at two points in its orbit. These points are called the nodes.

Whenever the Moon isn't located at a node, it is either north or south of the Earth-Sun line. Eclipses can only occur when the Moon is at one of the nodes and at new or full phase — when the Moon's orbit is positioned so that the nodes are aligned with the Earth-Sun line. This happens about twice a year, at intervals called eclipse seasons. The time of eclipse season changes over the course of many years, but consecutive eclipse seasons are about six months apart. In any year there are at least two eclipses, and there may be as many as seven, all occurring during the eclipse seasons. There are typically around four eclipses in a year.

Eclipses can only happen when the moon is at a node in its orbit - a point where the Moon's orbit around the Earth intersects with the Earth's orbit around the Sun. If the Moon crosses one of these nodes while it's in the full or new moon position, a lunar or solar eclipse (respectively) can occur.

The plane of the Moon's orbit around the Earth is tilted by 5° with respect to the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun, the ecliptic. This tilt prevents an eclipse from occurring at every new and full moon.

In a lunar eclipse, the observer watches the Earth's shadow fall on the Moon. Observers don't need to be in any special place to see the eclipse, so long as the Moon is visible. Consequently, an observer on the side of Earth facing the Moon will be able to see the eclipse. Fully half of the Earth will have a view. In a solar eclipse, the observer stands in the shadow of the Moon. The umbra of this shadow is small, so only a small portion of the Earth will see a total eclipse. A much larger portion will see the Moon only partially blocked, and will have a partial eclipse.

The Moon will often become reddish or orange in color during a lunar eclipse. The color of eclipses varies, with the Moon sometimes becoming very red and at others only darkening with no change in color at all. The Moon reddens during the eclipse because sunlight filters through the Earth's atmosphere and is scattered into the Earth's shadow. Sunlight reddens as it is scattered by dust and smoke in the Earth's the atmosphere; this is why sunsets are red. The reddened sunlight illuminates the eclipsed Moon, making the Moon brighter and redder. The color and darkness of an eclipse depends on the geometry of the eclipse and the weather on Earth during the eclipse.

Two phenomena caused by eclipses are the Diamond Ring and Baily's Beads.

Throughout history, astronomers have relied on cycles in their observations. The year, for example, is the cycle of the Earth's orbit around the Sun, and the seasons follow with this cycle, as do the motions of the stars. Since ancient times, astronomers have known about an eclipse cycle, called the Saros cycle. they can be used to predict in advance when an eclipse will occur and what the eclipse will be like.

The Saros cycle depends on three other cycles of the Moon: the time from one full moon to the next — the synodic month; the time it takes for the Moon to pass through a node and come all the way around — the draconic month; and the time it takes for the Moon to come close to the Earth in its orbit, move away, and come close again — the anomalistic month. In one Saros cycle, there are almost exactly 242 draconic months, almost exactly 223 synodic months, and almost exactly 239 anomalistic months. The Saros cycle is the smallest length of time that evenly contains all of these cycles. This is why eclipses repeat within the Saros cycle.

Stonehenge is an ancient structure in Britain. It is made up of 30 monoliths in the Sarsen Circle. There are 56 Aubrey Holes outside of Stonehenge. It is believed that Stonehenge was used for predicting eclipses.

General Astronomy
Phases of the Moon Eclipses Daily Motions