Image: A partial solar eclipse seen from space

August 14, 2017, European Space Agency
Credit: ESA/Royal Observatory of Belgium

Thanks to a quirk of our cosmos, the moon's average distance from Earth is just right for it to appear as the same size in the sky as the significantly larger sun. Once in a while the moon slides directly between Earth and the sun such that it appears to cover our star completely, temporarily blocking out its light and creating a total solar eclipse for those along the narrow path cast by the moon's shadow.

Next week, on 21 August, observers situated along a 115 km-wide swath stretching from Oregon to South Carolina in the US will be on this path of totality, with peak totality occurring at 18:26 GMT (check here for detailed timings). For up to 2 minutes 40 seconds, observers at a given location will be bathed in an eerie twilight in the middle of the day.

It is not possible to view totality from Europe, although those in the westernmost region may see a partial eclipse before the sun drops below the horizon at sunset.

A team of astronomers from ESA will be studying the eclipse from the USA and, like many others, hoping that skies will be clear so that they can capture the phenomena visible only during eclipses. These include beads of light shining through gaps in the lunar terrain, and the glittering 'diamond ring' effect as the last and first slither of sunlight glints through immediately before and after totality.

They will also aim to image the sun's extended atmosphere, the corona, which is visible to the naked eye only during totality when the rest of the sun's light is blocked out.

Observations of the corona are business as usual for the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, SOHO, which can use a special filter to block the sun's light. During Earth's total eclipse, SOHO will provide important context of the corona and sun's activity from its viewpoint in space.

Outside of the path of totality observers will experience a – seeing the moon appear to take a bite out of the sun's disc. This is similar to what our Proba-2 satellite will see – an example is shown in the image presented here, which was taken during the earlier this year. It shows the turbulent solar disc and swirling corona at extreme-ultraviolet wavelengths.

In fact, Proba-2 will see a series of partial eclipses from Earth orbit. Proba-2 orbits Earth about 14.5 times per day, and thanks to the constant change in viewing angle, will dip in and out of the moon's shadow several times during the solar eclipse.

In addition, astronauts aboard the International Space Station, including ESA's Paolo Nespoli, should also be able to see some aspects of the eclipse. From their unique vantage point, they will view partial eclipses and also hope to capture the moon's shadow on the surface of our planet.

Follow ESA's ground-based activities via cesar.esa.int and join the conversation on Twitter with #eclipse2017 and #solareclipse. We'll keep you posted on our activities – from ground and space – via @esascience.

Remember: never look directly at the sun, even when partially eclipsed, without proper eye protection such as special glasses, or you risk permanent eye damage.

Explore further: What should you look for during the total solar eclipse? A few out-of-this world highlights

Related Stories

What's a total solar eclipse and why this one is so unusual

August 5, 2017

Total solar eclipses occur every year or two or three, often in the middle of nowhere like the South Pacific or Antarctic. What makes the Aug. 21 eclipse so special is that it will cut diagonally across the entire United ...

Image: Proba-2 captures partial solar eclipse

September 16, 2015

ESA's Sun-watching Proba-2 satellite experienced three partial solar eclipses on 13 September 2015. On Earth, a single partial eclipse occurred over South Africa, the southern Indian Ocean and Antarctica.

SDO sees partial eclipse in space

May 26, 2017

On May 25, 2017, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, saw a partial solar eclipse in space when it caught the moon passing in front of the sun. The lunar transit lasted almost an hour, between 2:24 and 3:17 p.m. EDT, ...

Recommended for you

Unusual doughnut-shaped jet observed in the galaxy NGC 6109

August 15, 2018

Astronomers from the University of Bristol, U.K., have uncovered an unusual doughnut-shaped jet in the radio galaxy NGC 6109. It is the first time that such a jet morphology has been observed in a low-power radio galaxy. ...

Iron and titanium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet

August 15, 2018

Exoplanets, planets in other solar systems, can orbit very close to their host stars. When the host star is much hotter than the sun, the exoplanet becomes as hot as a star. The hottest "ultra-hot" planet was discovered last ...

Unraveling the stellar content of young clusters

August 14, 2018

About twenty-five percent of young stars in our galaxy form in clustered environments, and stars in a cluster are often close enough to each other to affect the way they accrete gas and grow. Astronomers trying to understand ...

0 comments

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.