Your Eclipse Guide for 2013

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This year sees a relatively quiet, yet interesting time for eclipse hunters with three lunar eclipses and two solar eclipses.

Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth lies between the sun and moon, blocking sunlight from reaching our natural satellite, making it go dark, or a deep shade of orange (depending on Earth's atmospheric conditions). Solar eclipses on the other hand take place when the moon blocks sunlight from reaching the Earth, making the sun momentarily disappear from view.

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What I have just described are total lunar and solar eclipses but in reality, the three objects don't always lie in a perfect line, an astronomical term known as a "syzygy."

This slight misalignment, or syzygy, can still lead to an eclipse, however. For example, today (April 25) the moon will lie slightly below the Earth-sun line and will only have sunlight partially blocked from reaching it. This is a partial lunar eclipse when only a portion of the moon goes into the darkest part of the Earth's shadow. In the case of this eclipse, a tiny fraction of the moon will go dark for only 27 minutes.

The beauty of lunar eclipses is that wherever the moon is visible, the eclipse will be visible. Solar eclipses, however, require you to be in exactly the right place on Earth to see it. Today's partial lunar eclipse will be visible for parts of South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia starting at 18:03 UT and ending at 22:11 UT.

Following hot on its heels is a solar eclipse on May 10, 2013, but this solar eclipse won't be total instead, it is an annular eclipse.

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The moon's orbit is very slightly elliptical, so the distance of the moon from the Earth varies. If a solar eclipse occurs when the moon is near its apogee (furthest distance from Earth) it is too small to cover the full disk of the sun so a bright ring surrounds the silhouetted moon.

The path of visibility of this annular eclipse tracks across the Pacific Ocean making it visible from Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Gilbert Islands. The eclipse will be seen as partial from parts of Australia and Indonesia and most of the Pacific Ocean.

Another lunar eclipse takes place on May 25, 2013, but again the moon is slightly out of alignment with the sun and Earth so this isn't a total eclipse. It is not even classed as a partial eclipse, instead the moon skirts through what is known as the penumbral shadow (or partial shadow) of the Earth where some sunlight still reaches it.

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The moon only goes slightly darker during these penumbral eclipses and in the case of this eclipse, only a tiny portion of the moon falls into the penumbral shadow making it barely noticeable to the casual observer. It is really not worth making the effort for this one.

The next eclipse is another penumbral lunar eclipse taking place on Oct. 18, 2013, and will be visible from America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Unlike the previous eclipse, nearly all of the moon slips into the penumbral shadow making it nicely visible between the hours of 23:00 UT and 00:10 UT

The final eclipse of the year is an interesting and rare one, however.

On Nov. 3, 2013, parts of the Northern Hemisphere are treated to what is known as a hybrid solar eclipse where a combination of annular and total will be seen.

The strange phenomena occurs where the tip of the moon's shadow hits the surface of the Earth at some points (total eclipse) and at other points it falls short (annular eclipse) and is caused by the curvature of the Earth's surface.

Typically these hybrid eclipses start as annular then become total as the shadow reaches Earth then finish as annular again but this eclipse is even more rare because it will simply start annular and finish total.

This hybrid eclipse will be visible from a narrow path across the Atlantic and parts of Africa but a partial eclipse will be visible over parts of eastern North America, northern regions of South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

More details of when and where to look to see these eclipses can be found on NASA's Eclipse website.

Happy eclipse spotting!

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