Monday, November 12, 2012

A hole in the heavens

After a week of travel in New Zealand and Australia, my daughter Maureen and daughter-in-law Patricia are in Cairns, Australia, to rendezvous with the Sun and Moon. It will be Tuesday evening here, but already Wednesday morning there, when the Sun rises over a Pacific horizon at 5:35 AM. Ten minutes later, the Moon begins to move between Cairns and the Sun, nibbling a bite of the Sun's disk at the 11-o'clock position. For the next hour, the Moon hides more and more of the Sun, as the Sun ascends the sky. Then, at 6:38, the last of the Sun's bright disk is covered.

The sight is one of the great glories of nature, heart-stoppingly beautiful, weird, magnificent, unlike anything one might expect. (I've watched two total solar eclipses, one on the Black Sea, another in southern Turkey.) For two minutes, the Australian dawn will return to night, and the Moon-covered Sun will look like an infinitely-deep black hole in the sky.

Unless…

Clouds. This time of year the chances of early morning clouds in Cairns are about 50/50. Current AccuWeather prediction looks dicey too. Let's cross our fingers for Patty and Mo.

The area in which totality can be viewed at any instant is an oval less than 100 miles wide, a moving dot on the Earth's surface, like the tracing of a marker pen on a household globe. As totality ends in Cairns, the magic dot moves out across the Pacific, not to touch land again.
A curious fact: The eclipse begins in Australia on Wednesday, and ends just west of the coast of South America on Tuesday.

Here's a map showing paths of totality (in blue} for the next eight years. I hope to be somewhere in that blue sweep across the US in 2017. If you can manage it, and have never seen a total solar eclipse before, start planning now to be there.