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Understanding Eclipses - Total Solar Eclipse

Updated on August 20, 2016
Austinstar profile image

L. Cargill, B.A., Sam Houston University, Huntsville, TX., has been writing cool and interesting articles for the internet world since 1995.

What happens during an eclipse?

Diagram of a partial solar eclipse.
Diagram of a partial solar eclipse. | Source

What is a Solar Eclipse?

Earth's moon travels around our planet in a slightly elliptical orbit approximately every 29.5 days from the "new" moon to the next "new" moon. As it happens, a solar eclipse only happens during this "new" moon phase.

When the Earth, new moon and sun line up in a straight path, the moon will "eclipse" the sun. The physical body of the moon comes between the sun and the Earth and this will cast a shadow down to the Earth's surface much like standing in front of a light and placing your hand in between you and the light. It's not magic, but some cultures used to think it was.

A total solar eclipse happens when the moon is close to the Earth, and therefore appears larger. This makes the moon appear to "cover" the entire sun. Relatively speaking, the moon is much too small to actually block out the entire sun. It just appears to do so.

Types of Eclipses

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Total Solar EclipsePartial Solar EclipseAnnular Solar Eclipse
Total Solar Eclipse
Total Solar Eclipse | Source
Partial Solar Eclipse
Partial Solar Eclipse | Source
Annular Solar Eclipse
Annular Solar Eclipse | Source

The Different Types of Solar Eclipses

Because of the sizes and distances involved with the Earth, its moon and the huge star we call the Sun, astronomers have classified solar eclipses into different types.

If the Earth, moon and sun form a straight line, and the moon is at the point closest to the Earth (perigee), the eclipse is called a total solar eclipse. The moon appears to black out the sun and all that remains visible is the outer corona. The actual shadow from the moon is still small and only certain portions of the Earth will be covered. These types of eclipses are very rare.

Less rarely, a partial solar eclipse happens when the new moon is between a line with the sun and Earth, but is not at its full node because of its orbital plane. Basically, this means that the Earth, moon and sun do not form a perfectly straight line and the moon appears to partially cover the sun instead of totally cover it. Only those on Earth standing directly in the darkest part of the moon's shadow (the umbra) will be able to see a partial eclipse.

Another rare event, called an annular eclipse, happens when the Earth, moon and sun are in a straight line and the new moon is at apogee (furthest away from the Earth). During an annular eclipse the outer ring, or annulus, of the sun is visible because the moon appears to be too small to completely cover the sun.

Viewing an Eclipse

Solar Eclipse Viewer - safe for home viewing of a solar event.
Solar Eclipse Viewer - safe for home viewing of a solar event. | Source

How to View a Solar Eclipse


Never look directly at the sun! Do not even try to look at the sun during an eclipse. The sun's rays are powerful and dangerous to the unprotected eye. The retinas are quickly damaged by ultraviolet and infrared radiation, and the damage is permanent.

Special equipment is needed to view a solar eclipse. Special dark lenses are required for telescopes and eye wear. These lenses must also be handled with care. Once they are damaged, they may not be used for viewing the sun again.

The best way to view a solar eclipse is with a trained group of solar eclipse guides. It is also possible to view a solar eclipse on television. Television stations invest quite a bit of money to record and broadcast a solar event.

The best private way to view a solar event is with a projection system. These can be simple or elaborate, but one must never look directly through the eye piece.

United States Total Solar Eclipse 8.21.2017

Optimal Viewing Area of the Next Total Solar Eclipse in the U.S.A.:
Hopkinsville, KY, USA

get directions

The next rare total solar eclipse center will pass right over Hopkinsville, Kentucky on August 21, 2017. Get your reservations in early!

Upcoming Solar Eclipses

Type of Eclipse
Viewing Region
April 4, 2015
Lunar Total
Asia, Australia, N. America, S. America
September 13, 2015
Solar Partial
S. Africa, Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Antarctica
September 28, 2015
Lunar Total
Mostly world wide
March 8/9, 2016
Solar Total
S&E. Asia, N&E Australia, Pacific, Indian Ocean

Solar Eclipses

Have you ever seen a solar eclipse?

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© 2012 Lela

Comments - What are your questions regarding solar eclipses?

Submit a Comment
  • Austinstar profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Somewhere near the heart of Texas

    All you really need are the basics!

  • josh3418 profile image

    Joshua Zerbini 

    7 years ago from Pennsylvania


    Fabulous huib of information here! I learned about these in high school, but nowhere near to the extent you just shared with us. That is the great thing about HubPages! I can learn something new every day, and noty have to pay for the schooling! I hate loans! LOL Great job Austinstar!

  • TToombs08 profile image

    Terrye Toombs 

    7 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

    Great information, Austinstar! :) The few times that eclipses were going to be visible in my area, it ended up being cloudy and we missed it. Looks like I might have to shoot for a trip downunder to catch one. Loved the info, thank you for this ! :) VUM!


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