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Science of a Total Solar Eclipse

How a Solar Eclipse Occurs (WPDE Graphic)

Sometimes when the moon orbits Earth, it moves between the sun and Earth. When this happens, the moon blocks the light of the sun from reaching Earth. This causes an eclipse of the sun, or solar eclipse. During a solar eclipse, the moon casts a shadow onto Earth.

There are three types of solar eclipses.

The first is a total solar eclipse. A total solar eclipse is only visible from a small area on Earth. The people who see the total eclipse are in the center of the moon’s shadow when it hits Earth. The sky becomes very dark, as if it were night. For a total eclipse to take place, the sun, moon and Earth must be in a direct line.

The second type of solar eclipse is a partial solar eclipse. This happens when the sun, moon and Earth are not exactly lined up. The sun appears to have a dark shadow on only a small part of its surface.

The third type is an annular (solar eclipse. An annular eclipse happens when the moon is farthest from Earth. Because the moon is farther away from Earth, it seems smaller. It does not block the entire view of the sun. The moon in front of the sun looks like a dark disk on top of a larger sun-colored disk. This creates what looks like a ring around the moon.

During a solar eclipse, the moon casts two shadows on Earth. The first shadow is called the umbra. This shadow gets smaller as it reaches Earth. It is the dark center of the moon’s shadow. The second shadow is called the penumbra. The penumbra gets larger as it reaches Earth. People standing in the penumbra will see a partial eclipse. People standing in the umbra will see a total eclipse.

Solar eclipses are not that uncommon happening once every 18 months, but it could be decades between eclipses for anyone location.

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