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What would a solar eclipse look like from the Moon? An astronomer answers that and other total eclipse questions

Moon covering most, then all, then most of the Sun
Composite image of moments before, during and after totality. NASA/Aubrey Gemignani, CC BY

A total solar eclipse will be visible across the U.S. on Monday, April 8, 2024. Shannon Schmoll, director of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University, explains why and how eclipses happen and what scientists can learn from an eclipse.

1. How do astronomers know in advance when an eclipse is going to happen and where it will be visible?

Solar eclipses happen when our view of the Sun is blocked by the Moon. When the Moon lines up between the Sun and Earth, the Moon will cast a shadow onto our planet. This is what we on the ground observe as a solar eclipse.

We know when they’ll happen because over centuries astronomers have measured very precisely the motions of the Earth, Moon and Sun and how they change over time.

With that data about the Moon – and similar information about the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – astronomers can make mathematical models of their movements in relation to each other. Using those equations, we can calculate tables of data that can predict what we will see on Earth, depending on location, during an eclipse as well as when they will happen and how long they last.

Diagram of solar eclipse path on Earth, stretching from Pacific Ocean, to Mexico diagonally NE to Maine
Dark blue path traces the path of the April 8 eclipse from west to east across North America. Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA's GSFC, CC BY

After April 8, the next solar eclipse that will run from coast to coast in North America will be in 2045.

2. How often do eclipses happen?

A solar eclipse happens, on average, a couple times a year. The Moon passes between the Earth and Sun every 29 days. We call that time the “new moon” – when the Moon is not visible in Earth’s nighttime sky.

However, the Moon’s orbit and the Sun’s path in our sky don’t match up exactly, so at most of those new moon events, the Moon appears above or below the Sun.

Curved lines denoting the orbits of the Sun and Moon as seen by someone on Earth
The blue line shows the ecliptic, the path the Sun appears to take in our sky as viewed from Earth. The white line shows the Moon’s orbit. For eclipses to happen, both the Sun and the Moon need to be within the area marked with yellow brackets. Shannon Schmoll, CC BY-ND

Twice a year, though, there is a period when the Moon and the Sun line up with Earth – astronomers call this an eclipse season. It lasts about 34 days, long enough for the moon to complete a full orbit, and then some, of the Earth.

During each eclipse season, there are at least two eclipses visible from some parts of the Earth. At the full moon, there will be a lunar eclipse, when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth, resulting in a darker, reddish-colored Moon. And at the new moon, there will be a solar eclipse, when the Sun is blocked by the Moon.

3. What can be learned from eclipse events, or are they just oddities in nature?

Scientists can definitely learn things from eclipses. The outermost layer of the Sun, known as the corona, is difficult to study because it’s less bright than the rest of the Sun – so it’s hard to see it amid the rest of the Sun’s brightness.

black circle of the Moon outlined by white rays against a dark sky
During an eclipse, the Sun’s corona becomes visible to observers on Earth. NASA

When the Moon blocks the Sun, the corona becomes visible – it’s the famous visual of the halo of light around the dark disk of the Moon. Currently astronomers study this by creating an artificial eclipse with a mask built into special instruments on telescopes called coronagraphs. This strategy is great, but it doesn’t allow the best pictures. Eclipses give scientists opportunities to get more data to study the corona in depth.

Researchers can also learn about Earth itself. In an area affected by an eclipse, the darkening of the Sun leads to a sudden drop in temperature. NASA-funded studies during this eclipse will look at the effects from the eclipse on our atmosphere as well as what happens on land. Previous studies observed animal behavior during an eclipse in 2001 and noted that some animals went through their night routines as the Sun disappeared, while others became nervous.

And scientists can learn about the whole universe. More than 100 years ago, an eclipse proved a prediction Albert Einstein had made about gravity. That success helped make him a household name. In his general theory of relativity, Einstein had predicted that gravity could bend the path of light. The effect he predicted was very slight, so it would best be viewed as the light passed a very large celestial body as part of its travels across a very long distance of space.

Sir Arthur Eddington, an astronomer who helped further the study of general relativity and whose work is a major piece of our modern understanding of stars and black holes, used the darkness provided by a solar eclipse to look at the position of the stars’ light during the day, when they passed the Sun. He then compared those positions to their known positions at night. He saw that the gravity of the Sun had bent the path – exactly as, and in the precise amount, Einstein had predicted.

4. How weird is it that the Moon can basically exactly block out the Sun?

Orange orb of the Sun with a small black dot visible against it
Venus appears as a small dot in the upper left as it passes between the Sun and Earth in 2012. NASA, CC BY

It is very unusual that the Moon and the Sun just happen to be at the right distances and sizes to appear to have the same size in our sky. This allows the Moon to perfectly block the Sun’s disk, while also showing us the corona.

Venus and Mercury, for instance, can also pass in front of the Sun from our perspective. However, they appear as small specks moving across the Sun.

conceptual cartoon of solar eclipse with Moon in between Sun and Earth, blocking sunlight
If you were on the dark side of the Moon during a solar eclipse, you could watch the Moon’s shadow travel across the Earth. Shannon Schmoll, CC BY-ND

5. What would someone standing on the Moon see happen on Earth? Would Earth get dark?

If you were on the Moon, you would be able to see the effects of the solar eclipse on Earth only if you were standing on the Moon’s night side, the side facing the Earth. You would see a round shadow cast onto the Earth.

This particular eclipse’s shadow will first hit the Pacific Ocean, make landfall in Mazatlán, then move through Texas in a diagonal path toward Maine, ending off the coast of Newfoundland in the Atlantic Ocean. This path the shadow takes is called the path of totality.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Aug. 3, 2017.

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