Solar Eclipses

Solar Eclipses Photo Credit: Clipart.com.
There are four types of solar eclipses: total, partial, penumbral, and hybrid. They occur when the moon passes between the sun and the earth. In order for an eclipse to occur, the three bodies roughly must form a straight line. The moon's shadow is cast back toward earth, causing the sun to be totally or partially blocked from an observer's view. In order to witness a solar eclipse, an observer must be within the area upon which the shadow falls. The observer's location in relation to the moon's shadow over the earth and the moon's location within its orbit of the earth determine the type of eclipse it will be.

The August 21, 2017, solar eclipse visible across the entire North American continent is a total solar eclipse. This occurs when there is a new moon and when the moon's orbit around the earth is at its perigree, or closest. The moon seems to appear at its largest from earth at this time. When the three bodies come into alignment, the moon completely blocks out the sun, causing a total solar eclipse. In order to observe a total solar eclipse, you must be within the area that the innermost and darkest part of the moon's shadow covers when it is cast back on the earth. That portion of shadow is called the "umbra." The next total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. will be April 8, 2024.

A partial solar eclipse can occur at any time during the moon's orbit. The moon only partially blocks the sun, allowing a crescent-shaped piece of it to appear behind the moon's edge. In order to see a partial solar eclipse, you must be within the area traversed by the lighter, outermost part of the moon's shadow called the "penumbra." The next partial solar eclipse visible from the U.S. will be January 14, 2029.

An annular solar eclipse is a type of partial eclipse. It occurs when the moon is further from the earth in its orbit, which means the moon appears smaller than it does during a total solar eclipse. Because of this perceived size difference, the moon does not appear to be the same size as the face of the sun, leaving a ring of sun visible around the edge of the moon. During this time, the moon's shadow visible on earth is called "antumbra," meaning "before the umbra." The next annular solar eclipse visible from the U.S. will be June 10, 2021.

A hybrid solar eclipse, sometimes called an annular/total eclipse, occurs rarely and only when the coverage of the sun shifts during the eclipse from annular to total back to annular over the course of the eclipse. (Even more rarely, the eclipse may shift from annular to total or vice versa and not back again.) This change is caused by the curvature of the earth, which raises certain areas of the surface of the planet slightly, bringing it into the umbral shadow of the moon. As the curvature shifts away, the surface of the earth shifts out of the umbral shadow and back into the antumbral shadow. The next hybrid solar eclipse visible from the U.S. will be December 6, 2067.

It is only safe to look directly at a total solar eclipse when the sun's face is completely obscured by the moon, but as the moon is coming into alignment and during all other types of solar eclipses, looking directly at the sun can damage your eyes. Using special equipment is the only safe way to observe most eclipses.
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  • Sky 1: Objects in the Sky

    Sky 1: Objects in the Sky

    K-2  |  Hands-On
    In this lesson, students will investigate objects in the daytime and nighttime sky
  • Sky 2: Shadows

    Sky 2: Shadows

    K-2  |  Hands-On
    In this lesson, students will explore making shadows and tracking the movement of an object over the course of a day to look for patterns.
  • Sky 4: The Moon

    Sky 4: The Moon

    K-2  |  Hands-On
    Students draw the moon's shape for each evening on a calendar and then determine the pattern in the shapes over several weeks.
  • The Warmth of the Sun

    The Warmth of the Sun

    K-2  |  Hands-On
    Students will take a closer look at the sun and begin to recognize its critical function in heating and warming the air, land, and water that sustain our lives.
  • Looking at the Night Sky

    Looking at the Night Sky

    3-5  |  Interactive
    This lesson helps students understand that the patterns of stars in the sky stay the same and different stars can be seen in different seasons.
  • Harnessing Solar Energy

    Harnessing Solar Energy

    6-8  |  Hands-On
    This lesson will help students discover the properties of light (radiant) energy from the sun by experimenting with solar collectors, cookers, and calculators.
  • The Sun

    The Sun

    6-8  |  Hands-On
    This lesson introduces students to our local star, the sun, especially its structure and its features such as sun spots, magnetic fields, and solar flares.
  • Sun & Skin

    Sun & Skin

    9-12  |  Interactive
    In this lesson, students will discuss what they already know about the impact sun exposure has on their skin and what they typically do to protect themselves, if anything.
  • Sunspots 1: A Look at Sunspots

    Sunspots 1: A Look at Sunspots

    In this lesson, students will learn how the development of new technology has increased our knowledge of how the sun works.


  • NASA GLOBE Observer App

    NASA GLOBE Observer App

    K-12  |  Interactive
    GLOBE Observer app invites you to make environmental observations that complement NASA satellite observations to help scientists studying Earth and the global environment.
  • NASA Eclipse Web Site

    NASA Eclipse Web Site

    6-12  |  Website
    In this overview from NASA, learn about solar and lunar eclipses, as well as planetary transits.
  • Planets App

    Planets App

    3-12  |  Interactive
    The Planets App, by Q Continuum, provides several different ways for you to get information about objects in the sky.
  • iNaturalist App

    iNaturalist App

    3-12  |  Interactive
    This app lets you record observations from nature and share them with the iNaturalist online community.
  • Bobo Explores Light App

    Bobo Explores Light App

    3-8  |  Interactive
    Bobo Explores Light is an iPad book that introduces school-age children to fundamental science concepts.


Science Updates

  • Solar Blind

    Solar Blind

    6-12  |  Audio
    We’ve always been warned not to look at the sun, for fear of burning out the cells in our retinas. It turns out that even photodetectors—devices specially designed to measure light—can’t look at the sun either, but for a different reason: they’re rendered useless when flooded with the sun’s intense rays. In this Science Update, you’ll hear about a new photodetector that’s not afraid to stare the sun straight in the eye.
  • Solar Power from Moon

    Solar Power from Moon

    6-12  |  Audio
    Solar power is clean, abundant, and becoming cheaper and more efficient all the time. Unfortunately, however, the sun isn't always there when you need it—like when it's cloudy, or it's raining, or it's nighttime. In this Science Update, you'll hear about an ambitious plan to get around that problem.

Afterschool Resources

  • By the Light of the Moon

    By the Light of the Moon

    3-6  |  Hands-On
    As the moon goes through its phases, it looks a little different each night, ranging from not there at all to full. Your group will act out how the sun illuminates the moon as it orbits Earth, to understand how the moon moves through its phases.

AAAS Resources

Science Books and Films Presents a Read-Around-A-Theme on Solar Eclipses
AAAS's SB&F offers book suggestions, web resources, and facts about solar eclipses.

An 1878 Eclipse Offered American Scientists the Chance to Prove Their Scientific Chops. Did They Deliver?
Science reviews American Eclipse, David Barron's new book about Maria Mitchell, Thomas Edison, and James Craig Watson in the days leading up to a major astronomical event of the late 19th century.

Ancient Eclipses Show Earth's Rotation Is Slowing
Science shares how researchers have looked at eclipses from ancient Greece, China, the Middle East, and other areas worldwide dating back as far as 720 B.C.E. to show the earth's rotation has not remained constant.

19th Century Eclipse Explorations Helped Build U.S. Scientific Institutions
Scientists studying the seven eclipses visible from the United States in the 1800s helped contribute to the growth of AAAS, National Academy of Sciences, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Three Times Scientists Learned Something from Solar Eclipses—and Three Times They Were Tricked
Solar eclipses have helped lead to some key scientific discoveries. Here are three—plus one wild goose chase and two “findings” that turned out to be false alarms.

How the Moon Got Its Tilt—and Earth Got Its Gold
This story offers a suggestion for why there isn't a solar eclipse every month—and it also explains why there the earth has precious metals, such as gold and platinum.

Other Resources

Experience the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Across America
NASA's comprehensive site offers background information on eclipses and how to view them safely, links to official and unofficial NASA events and resources, information on research NASA hopes to conduct around the eclipse, and related hands-on science activities, classroom resources, and fact sheets.

Travel the Path of the Solar Eclipse
Using this interactive map from the Washington Post, follow the shadow of the moon as it completely blocks out the sun on August 21, moving along a 3,000-mile path from Oregon’s Pacific coast to the eastern shore of South Carolina.

Planning to Watch the Eclipse? Here's What You Need to Protect Your Eyes
NPR offers tips for protecting your vision during a solar eclipse.

How to View a Solar Eclipse Safely
The American Astronomical Society offers instructions for safe use of solar filters/viewers and a list of reputable vendors of solar filters/viewers to help combat fraudulent and useless ones being marketed online.

Eclipse for Everyone
NASA has developed a Braille book, Getting a Feel for Eclipses, for use by those who aren't able to experience the solar eclipse visually.

Scientists Prepare for 'The Most Beautiful Thing You Can See in the Sky'
Scientists share their excitement about the upcoming total solar eclipse on NPR's All Things Considered.

Eclipse Megamovie Project
Google, the University of California, Berkeley, and others are joining forces to gather images of the 2017 total solar eclipse from over 1,000 volunteer photographers and amateur astronomers, as well as many more members of the general public in the path of totality, which they'll stitch together to create an expanded and continuous view of the total eclipse as it crosses the United States.

A Native Perspective on the Upcoming Total Solar Eclipse
In some Native American cultures, including the Navajo, viewing a solar or lunar eclipse is taboo. Learn more in this letter from American Indian Library Association President Naomi Bishop about being culturally sensitive in your eclipse programming.

16 Ways to Study the Total Solar Eclipse in Your Classroom
The Legends of Learning blog offers links, games, and classroom activity suggestions.

Total Solar Eclipse 2017 Live Stream
The Exploratorium offers videos, articles, a Q&A, and five live streams (including one in Spanish) on Aug. 21.

The Great American Eclipse
Discovery Education offers a selection of their resources for teachers. While the facts section is free, other resources are behind a firewall, although a free trial is available.

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