Otherworldly Solar Eclipse

Feb 26, 2009 by Dr. Tony Phillips

For the first time, a spacecraft from Earth has captured hi-resolution images of a solar eclipse while orbiting another world.

Japan's Kaguya lunar orbiter accomplished the feat on Feb. 9, 2009, when the Sun, Earth and Moon lined up in a nearly perfect row. From Kaguya's point of view, Earth moved in front of the Sun, producing an otherworldly "diamond-ring" eclipse. Click here to launch a movie of the event recorded by Kaguya's onboard HDTV camera.

The sequence begins in complete darkness. At first, Kaguya couldn't see the eclipse because it was blocked by the lunar horizon: see diagram. Soon, however, the viewing angle improves and a thin ring of light appears. This is Earth's atmosphere backlit by the sun. (Inside that ring, sleepy-headed Earthlings are experiencing the first light of dawn.) Just as the arc is about to join ends to complete the circle—bloom! A sliver of the Sun's disk emerges, bringing the eclipse to a sudden, luminous end.

Kaguya is the largest mission to the Moon since the Apollo program. Launched in late 2007, the spacecraft consists of a mother ship plus two smaller orbiters that work together to relay data to Earth even from the Moon's farside. Kaguya bristles with 13 scientific instruments powered by 3.5 kilowatts of electricity, enough to light up good-sized home on Earth. So far the spacecraft has laser-mapped the Moon's surface in 3D, searched polar craters for signs of lunar ice, probed the gravitational field of the farside of the Moon—and much more.

The eclipse images are a bonus. Strictly speaking, Kaguya's HDTV cameras (there are two of them) are not part of the scientific payload. They were included on the spacecraft as a means of outreach—to share Kaguya's view with Japanese citizens. Near real-time transmissions broadcast on Japanese public television are reportedly very popular.

Kaguya's cameras would have come in handy forty years ago.

On April 24, 1967, NASA's Surveyor 3 lunar lander witnessed an Earth-eclipse of the Sun from a crater in Mare Cognitium. Only a crude snapshot, right, chronicles the event.

In Nov. 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts saw their own diamond ring. It was "a marvelous sight," said Alan Bean. He was flying home from the Moon along with crewmates Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon when their spaceship flew through Earth's shadow. "Our home planet [eclipsed] our own star," he marveled. Bean's photo of the event (click here) improved upon Surveyor 3's, but couldn't match Kaguya's modern video.

Later this year, NASA will up the ante with the launch of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The probe carries its own suite of advanced scientific instruments including a camera powerful enough to capture the outlines of moonbuggies and other hardware left behind on the lunar surface by Apollo astronauts. Not even Hubble has been able to do that.

When LRO reaches the Moon, it will join Japan's Kaguya, China's Chang'e-1 and India's Chandrayaan-1 missions already in orbit. Never before has such an international fleet assembled for lunar research. With so many spacecraft on duty, it is only a matter of time before Kaguya's eclipse is itself eclipsed by something even more marvelous. Stay tuned.

Provided by Dr. Tony Phillips, Science@NASA

Explore further: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Watch the "blood moon" eclipse from Mercury (w/ Video)

Oct 13, 2014

Yes, it's another time-lapse of the October 8 lunar eclipse that was observed by skywatchers across half the Earth… except that these images weren't captured from Earth at all; this was the view from Mercury!

LRO observes final lunar eclipse of the year

Dec 09, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Orbiting 31 miles above the lunar surface, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft will get a "front-row seat" to the total lunar eclipse on Dec. 10, 2011.

LADEE mission ends with planned lunar impact

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Ground controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., have confirmed that NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the surface ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

Spinning up a dust devil on Mars

Dec 19, 2014

Spinning up a dust devil in the thin air of Mars requires a stronger updraft than is needed to create a similar vortex on Earth, according to research at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.