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Astronomers, stargazers prepare for last solar eclipse of millennium

Astronomers and amateur sky-watchers alike will have the opportunity today to observe the Western Hemisphere's final total solar eclipse during this millennium.

While the eclipse will only reach totality in a small area of the Caribbean, a partial eclipse will be observable throughout much of North and South America.

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A solar eclipse takes place when the moon comes between the earth and the sun, thereby blocking the sun's direct rays and casting its shadow on the earth's surface.

Total solar eclipses are fairly common, with one occurring about every 18 months. However, they are often only observable in remote areas of the world, making research expensive and inconvenient, said astrophysics department chair Bruce Draine.

According to NASA, the next total solar eclipse visible in the Western Hemisphere will not take place until 2017.

Watching the eclipse

New Jersey State Planetarium spokesman Dick Peery said the best places to observe the eclipse will be areas within "the path of totality," such as Aruba, north Panama, Venezuela and some of the other islands in the Lesser Antilles. Areas farther away will experience partial eclipses.

Peery said a 22-percent eclipse will be visible in the Princeton area. According to Peery, the event will begin at 12:28 p.m., reaching maximum coverage at 1:19 p.m. The eclipse will be complete at 2:08 p.m.

"The most important thing to remember is not to look directly at the sun," Peery said. "(The New Jersey State Planetarium) will have telescopes set up outside for people interested in the eclipse to use."

Research

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While amateur sky-watchers head out to see the eclipse today, academic researchers will be using the opportunity to do more serious research. Astrophysics professor Gillian Knapp said eclipses provide excellent opportunities.

"It's a pretty awesome thing to observe. The moon and the sun look the same size from the earth," Knapp said. "With the central area of the sun blocked out, we can see things that we normally can't."

Draine explained that solar eclipses are interesting because they allow scientists to study the outer atmosphere of the sun. "During a total solar eclipse, we can see the hot gases that make up the solar corona," he said.

Knapp explained that eclipses are useful in investigating Einstein's theory of general relativity research, as well. "There's some very neat physics going on here," she said.

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"The theory is that if light from a star passes the sun, then the light gets bent. When the sun is shining normally, there's no way to observe that," Knapp said.

Peery said he was excited about the eclipse. "I like any kind of astronomical event that will make people watch the sky," he said. "When you're in the path of totality, you can observe the corona, and the eruptions of gas called prominences."

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