Science And Environment Questions: What Is A Solar Eclipse?

A Solar Eclipse happens when the moon, in it's orbit, goes between the Sun and the earth, projecting its shadow on the earth below.

Something strange is happening in the sky. The blue expanse starts to take on a grayish tint. The green landscape turns to orange, then purple. The temperature begins to fall. And then the Sun, which has up until now appeared as a perfect circle, develops a small spot on it's eastern side. What is it? Yes, the moon has started to cross in front of it. Slowly the moon continues its advance, taking away larger chunks of our Sun. The result on earth? Increasing darkness. Soon the entire Sun has been covered. We have just witnessed a sunset and nightfall - and it is the middle of the day!

Suddenly the darkness is lit up by collossal flames that appear to come from the hidden Sun. Far of in the distance, in all directions, light can be seen. Then, a brilliant circular band of diamonds appears in the sky. This is caused by a series of bright lights that are the result of the Sun's rays passing through the lunar surface. Now the Moon begins to move beyond the Sun, and the heat of our Solar furnace can again be felt. Everything comes back to life. The eclipse has lasted three and a half minutes.

As we have seen, an eclipse is simply the hiding of a celestial body by the interposition of another. Eclipses may be whole or partial. A Solar Eclipse happens when the moon, in it's orbit, goes between the Sun and the earth, projecting its shadow on the earth below. Eclipses are naturally occurring events and, therefore, take place with exact regularity.

The first recorded eclipse was in 585 B.C.E. The scene was a battle field in Asia Minor that was witness to a bloody encounter between the Medes and the Lydians. Without warning, the battle-field was thrown into darkness. The warriors were awestruck, believing that God was sending an undeniable message to them. They promptly ended their 6 year war. Another notable eclipse occurred in 1629. That year Jesuit missionaries in China were able to gain favor with the Emperor by predicting an eclipse. The Jesuits had noticed that the Chinese lunar calendar was in error. Court astronomers had predicted that the eclipse would come on the morning of June 21st at 10:30 and last for 2 hours. The Jesuits, however, predicted that the eclipse would not come until 11:30 and would last for just two minutes. Sure enough, 10:30 am came and went but the sun still shone brilliantly. But at 11:30 the eclipse came and lasted for a grand total of two minutes. The Imperial astronomers were wrong and the Jesuits were right. From that moment on they had the confidence of the Emperor.

Since ancient times, many other explanations have emerged to explain this phenomena. The native peoples of Asia believed that it was due to the fainting or even sickness and death of the Sun. The inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands believed that during an eclipse the Sun and Moon move out of their natural positions in order to get a better view of affairs on the earth. The people of Tahiti held that it was due to the mating of the Sun and Moon - the stars being the product of such a union. Of course, science has provided for us today a less sensational explanation. This in no way, however, lessens the awesome spectacle of this majestic heavenly performance - the Solar Eclipse.

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