Today’s Solar Eclipse: FAQ
On Jan. 4, 2011, the moon passed in front of the sun in a partial solar eclipse - as seen from parts of Earth. Here, the joint Japanese-American Hinode satellite captured the same breathtaking event from space. The unique view created what's called an annular solar eclipse.
Credit: Hinode/XRT

A solar eclipse will sweep across much of the United States today and parts of Asia in an event that is dominating web searches. The term “solar eclipse 2012” is the No. 1 search on Google this morning. There will be two eclipse types depending on where you are: an annular eclipse with the so-called “ring of fire,” which means sunlight will stream around the disk of the moon; and a partial eclipse for most skywatchers. Here are the details:

When is the eclipse?

It will unfold late this afternoon and this evening in the United States. You can search for the timing and circumstances of your town here.

Where is the eclipse visible?

This NASA graphic of the United States depicts the path of the annular solar eclipse of May 20, 2012, when the moon will cover about 94 percent of the sun's surface as seen from Earth.
This NASA graphic of the United States depicts the path of the annular solar eclipse of May 20, 2012, when the moon will cover about 94 percent of the sun's surface as seen from Earth.
Credit: NASA/JPL, Jane Houston Jones

From China and Japan to the American West, the shadow of the annular solar eclipse will sweep across the planet at 1,243 mph (2000 kph). Astronauts in the International Space Station may get a chance to see the moon shadow on Earth. The path of this main event is about 150 to 186 miles wide (240 to 300 km) miles wide. (The partial eclipse will visible across a much wider area.) The annular eclipse will be visible from 33 National Parks, including the Grand Canyon.

What is an annular solar eclipse?

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon blocks out the sun. The moon orbits the Earth in a plane that is slightly offset from the plane in which the Earth orbits the sun, so the alignment creating a solar eclipse is rare. An annular solar eclipse occurs when the moon is at or near the farthest point on its non-circular orbit around Earth, and so it’s too small in the sky to completely cover the sun. The result is akin to a black dime in front of a shiny penny, with the sun (the penny) still visible around the dime (the moon) in a “ring of fire” effect. If you have safe viewing tools and are in the path, this is a once-in-a-lifetime amazing celestial event.

What will the annular solar eclipse look like?

"It certainly will not become as dark as night; instead you might call it a weird 'counterfeit twilight' as the quality of the light, may become unearthly," says SPACE.com skywatching columnist Joe Rao. "A clear sky should turn deep blue and the landscape oddly silvery. The temperature may take a perceptible drop; a cool breeze may begin to blow."

What is a partial solar eclipse?

A partial solar eclipse will be visible from many locations in the United States, but not the East Coast. See the map. The moon will block part of the sun and appear to take a bite out of it. If you have safe viewing tools, the effect is pretty cool and odds are you won’t get many chances to see this in your lifetime.

What will the partial solar eclipse look like?

Other than the scalloped effect of the moon covering part of the sun, there won’t be much to notice. The sky won’t darken enough for most people to notice. However, you might take the opportunity to spot another planet during the daytime — something few individuals have ever done. Venus will be well up in the sky above the sun and back along the path of the sun’s travels during the day. Stretch your arm out and measure two fist-widths from the sun and look for a bright point of light: Venus.

How can I safely watch the eclipse?

A tourist watches a solar eclipse through eclipse-viewing glasses in 2009 in Varanasi, India.
A tourist watches a solar eclipse through eclipse-viewing glasses in 2009 in Varanasi, India.
Credit: Pete Niesen / Shutterstock.com

Do not look directly at the sun. During a total solar eclipse, the moon completely blocks the sun, but today’s eclipse will not be total. Sunlight can damage your eyes.

  • One safe way to view the sun is with eclipse glasses, but eclipse glasses are sold out at many places that carry them.
  • An alternative is No. 14 welder’s glass, used in welder’s goggles.
  • Special solar filters can be fitted to telescopes. Otherwise, don’t look at the sun directly through a normal telescope.
  • Sans those options, build a pinhole camera to see the eclipse indirectly.
  • Or you can stand under a leafy tree and, almost miraculously, you’ll see the image of the eclipse repeated multiple times in the dappled light on the ground.  

If all other opportunities and tactics fail, you can also watch a live eclipse webcast.