The total solar eclipse is an incredible phenomenon, one that I hope to see myself someday.
It isn’t often that an astronomical event occurs of such magnitude that people of all walks of life from all around the globe are drawn to one measly 65-mile wide strip of land, to crowd in like sardines as they watch the world change around them.
What’s important to realize about a total solar eclipse, versus just an annular one, is that it’s a people event.
Scientists do take this opportunity to study the sun’s corona, an outer layer of gases that’s usually too faint to be seen. But in general, this is an event for crowds to enjoy.
And enjoy it they do. I have never known another event of astronomical significance to populate the web and turn heads like a total solar eclipse.
But what happens during a solar eclipse? What can you expect to see, and how can you protect your eyes from the sun’s damaging rays?
You may recognize this as the famed “diamond ring effect.” It occurs a few minutes before totality, and is one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see.
What you’re seeing is the dark side of the moon—its silhouette, if you will—crossing in front of the sun. If the moon is oriented just perfectly, a little bit of the sun’s light might peek out through a valley on the outer edge of the moon’s disk.
And if this happens, we get the brilliant diamond ring effect.
The diamond ring effect is as dangerous as it is beautiful. Do not look at it without proper solar equipment!
“Proper solar equipment” could mean the solar glasses that were in cheap supply up until August 21 this year, a welder’s mask if you know what you’re doing, a telescopic solar filter, or—if you’re ambitious—a solar telescope.
Please, please, please, if you have the opportunity to see the diamond ring effect, go! Don’t miss it! It’s incredible and spectacular. I’ll bet you can find poetry written on it. But please be safe!
Next up in a total solar eclipse is Bailey’s Beads…
Unfortunately, the best image I could find sort of faced in the opposite direction from the diamond ring effect above. So for your viewing pleasure, here’s a more sequential shot…
Here, from left to right, the diamond ring effect subsides as the moon covers more of the sun and blocks more of its light. The third and fourth images over are good shots of Bailey’s Beads. I’m not sure who Bailey is supposed to be, but this effect is named for its bead-like appearance.
Once you see Bailey’s beads, you should count thirty seconds—and make sure it’s thirty seconds! —and then look at the sun without protection.
Yes, you read that right. I said look at the sun without protection.
But count thirty seconds first. Please. For your own sake, if you don’t want to risk retinal damage, which in plain English means loss of sight or even blindness, count thirty seconds first. I cannot stress this enough.
Then you can look at the sun without protection. This is the part where I urge you to do so. This entire time, it was physically dangerous to your person to look without protection. Now, if you don’t take off those solar glasses, you’ll miss the show.
And by the show…yes, I mean totality.
Totality, as I’ve written before, happens when the entire sun is covered by the moon. Up in the sky, we see the silhouette of the moon ringed by the sun’s gorgeous corona. And the moon casts a dramatic shadow over the Earth.
From high up above the clouds in this image, we can see the elongated shadow of the moon as it slips over the Earth’s surface…
But the coolest part is, you don’t even need to work in NASA or on an aircraft to see this stuff. I wasn’t able to find a picture, but when you’re standing on the ground waiting for totality, here’s what you can see.
First, please make sure you’re not looking at the sun.
Second, take off your protection, because otherwise you won’t be able to see anything but the sun.
Third, look around you. Find the direction the moon is coming from. It might help to remember which direction the moon is creeping across the sun overhead. In the distance, you’ll see the great darkness of the moon’s shadow rushing toward you.
Yeah. I’m serious.
When totality hits, it’s the most incredible thing in the world. It’s night during the day. Birds stop singing. Winds change. The temperature drops dramatically. To say nothing of the energy grid.
During the eclipse of August 21, 2017 in the United States, 75% of the nation’s solar power energy grid was knocked out. 25% had to support the nation for the duration of totality.
But the real show, the show you CANNOT see with your solar glasses on, is up above you.
This is the only time you will ever be able to see the sun’s corona.
The corona may be the most surface layer of the sun, but it’s the dimmest. Its almost angelic glow is completely swallowed up by the photosphere. But during a total solar eclipse, you can see it.
This is a good example of what you might see. I’ve heard that the corona appears almost unearthly. The sun as we know it is harsh and bright and its light scatters throughout our atmosphere, touching every surface. But the corona is gentle and glowing. And it’s what makes totality such an incredible phenomenon.
Totality lasts a few minutes on average. After that, you’ll need to whip those glasses back on, because you’re about to get an encore of everything that’s just happened—but in reverse.
Bailey’s Beads will peak out around the edge of the sun, just on the opposite side of the disc. Then they’ll give way to the brilliant diamond ring effect, and eventually the moon will creep away across the sun’s disk until it disappears entirely.