The darkness cometh (but not here)
Wanna see a solar eclipse? The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century, not to be surpassed in duration until June 13, 2132? WELL, TOO BAD. The spectacular total eclipse of Wednesday, July 22, 2009 will only be visible from a narrow corridor through northern Maldives, northern India, eastern Nepal, northern Bangladesh, Bhutan, the northern tip of Myanmar, central China and the Pacific Ocean, including the Ryukyu Islands, Marshall Islands and Kiribati (pronounced “keer-a-biss”). But not here, in good ol’ North America. The sun doesn’t like us much over here, apparently.
The heavenly event that you will not see will last, at most, 6 minutes, 39 seconds. The moon will begin to cover the sun long before, and exit long after, but what astronomers call “totality” does not last all that long. But the moon is closer to the Earth than normal due to being near perigee, making its apparent diameter 8% larger than the sun, giving us (I mean them) our (their) six and two-thirds minutes of darkness.
A solar eclipse is a wonder not to be missed. Stars and planets come out. Chickens tuck in for the night. The sun’s corona, normally invisible, blazes forth in fiery display. Did I mention the stars come out? That little fact enabled early 20th Century scientists to validate Einstein’s theory of general relativity by showing the stars appearing around the sun were not quite where they should be due to the sun’s gravity bending light*, indicating that space itself is curved. All because our moon sits at exactly the correct distance to fit over the sun; not too far, not too close. This breakthrough would have been impossible if we had no moon, or if it was in any other orbital position. (Of course, the moon is slowly inching, or more correctly, centimeter-ing away from the Earth. In the far future, the total eclipse will be forever replaced by the annular or “ring” eclipse.)
So, thanks a lot, Mr. Sun and Mr. Moon. I didn’t have the money or time to travel to rural China to witness your celestial dance. Next time, have the manners to cast your narrow shadow right over my house. I may switch off “Battlestar Galactica” to come see you, if it has gone to commercial.
* Light actually does NOT bend, but must always travel in a straight line. When space is curved around a large gravity well like the sun, the light follows the curvature in a straight line. Get it? Whew.