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Your Ultimate Guide to Solar Eclipses

Ever wonder what causes a solar eclipse or how often they occur? Here is everything you need to know about these awe inspiring events.

By LeeAundra Temescu
Jul 30, 2009 12:00 AMApr 18, 2024 7:33 PM
solar eclipse
(Credit: IgorZh/Shutterstock)


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Thousands of years ago, before Johannes Kepler more closely described an eclipse, people would watch in shock and awe as a dark object slowly moved across the sun or moon and, in some cases, blocked out their light entirely. According to NASA, many ancient civilizations kept records of eclipses. Some even believed that the sun seemed to be swallowed. 

Back then, it was likely a rather heart-stopping sight to behold. While we now better understand eclipses, they are still a wondrous phenomenon that makes us stop and look up. The next significant solar eclipse will be an annular eclipse on October 2, 2024. With it not that far away, here is everything you need to know about solar eclipses to get you ready.

What Is a Solar Eclipse?

A solar eclipse is a celestial phenomenon where the sun, Earth, and the moon line up. This can come as a total, annular, partial, or hybrid eclipse. 

What Causes a Solar Eclipse?

The main cause of a solar eclipse is the moon. When the sun, moon, and Earth line up during an eclipse, the moon will partially or totally (depending on the type of eclipse) block the sun’s rays from reaching Earth. A solar eclipse can only happen during a new moon. 

What Is a Total Solar Eclipse?

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth, completely blocking out the sun. For those within the moon’s shadow will see the sky grow dark; it’s even possible that street lights or dusk/dawn lights could come on. 

During a total solar eclipse, it may be possible to see the sun’s corona, which is otherwise blocked by its bright light. 

What Is an Annular Solar Eclipse?

An annular solar eclipse takes place when the moon is at its furthest point from Earth and lines up with the sun. The moon again blocks the sun’s light, but because it’s so far from Earth, the moon does not completely cover the sun. The result looks like the moon with a bright ring around it. 

What Is a Partial Solar Eclipse?

A partial solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, but the three are not lined up perfectly. Because of this, only part of the sun will be blocked by the moon, giving the sun a crescent shape.  Those outside of the direct moon shadow during an annular or total solar eclipse will see a partial eclipse. 

What Is a Hybrid Solar Eclipse?

A hybrid solar eclipse — typically the most rare — occurs as the moon’s shadow moves across Earth’s curve. The eclipse can sometimes shift from an annular to a total solar eclipse. 

Read More: How Long Will The Solar Eclipse Last? It Depends

What Does a Solar Eclipse Look Like?

Solar eclipses can look different depending on the type and where they are being viewed from. If you’re in the moon’s direct shadow, a total and annular eclipse looks like a giant, dark orb has moved in front of the sun. 

For a partial eclipse, the moon blocks part of the sun and gives it a crescent shape. 

What Happens During a Solar Eclipse?

A solar eclipse occurs when the sun, moon, and Earth align. The moon will block part of the sun and cast a shadow on part of Earth. According to NASA, there are two parts of the moon’s shadow: the umbra, where the sun is completely blocked, and the penumbra, where the sun is partially blocked. If you’re located in the penumbra, you’ll only see a partial eclipse instead of the total. 

How Long Does a Solar Eclipse Last?

While a solar eclipse is a major celestial event, it unfortunately does not last very long. According to NASA, a total solar eclipse lasts anywhere between 10 seconds to seven and a half minutes. Overall, the total event will last less than 10 minutes. 

Read More: Disoriented Animals Behave Strangely During Total Solar Eclipses

How Often Do Solar Eclipses Occur?

Eclipses are an annual event, with two to five occurring each year, according to the Natural History Museum. A total eclipse generally occurs once every 18 months but are only visible if you happen to be in that exact part of the planet when it occurs. 

When Was the Last Total Solar Eclipse?

The last total solar eclipse was on April 8, 2024. This eclipse was visible across parts of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada.

When is the Next Solar Eclipse?

The next eclipse will be an annular eclipse on October 2, 2024. This eclipse will be visible in South America, while a partial eclipse will be visible in South America, Antarctica, Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and North America.

The next total solar eclipse will be in August 12, 2026, which will be visible in Greenland, Iceland, Spain, Russia, and a portion of Portugal. Additionally, a partial eclipse can be seen in Europe, Africa, North America, as well as the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans.

Read More: Here's Your Guide to Seeing the 2024 Solar Eclipse

How to View a Solar Eclipse Safely

While a solar eclipse is a sight to behold, it is also potentially dangerous and could harm your sight if the proper precautions are not taken. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), everyday sunglasses or peeking through your fingers is not a safe way to view the solar eclipse. 

Instead, use methods like specialized eclipse glasses or viewers. These glasses have protective lenses that prevent damage to your eyes. If you want to use a camera or telescope to view the eclipse, be sure to first equip a proper solar lens. NASA advises seeking the help of an expert before using these lenses to ensure they’re properly fitted. 

If you don’t have any protective eyewear handy, you can make your own eclipse pinhole viewer with paper, tape, aluminum foil, and a pencil (or a small, pointy object). 

What Happens If You Look at a Solar Eclipse?

According to the NEI, looking directly at the sun on any given day or during an eclipse can lead to eye damage and permanent vision loss. The sun’s rays are so powerful that they could burn the back of the retina, leaving it scared and leading to fuzzy or graying vision. 

The solar eclipse is a magnificent event that should be experienced safely. Ensure you have the proper eyewear and find a safe place to view this spectacular event. 

Read More: An Omen Of Doom And Other Myths Surrounding Solar Eclipses

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