Mark up the morning of the 20th March as a moment in time not to be missed.

It’s a solar eclipse, the biggest since 1999, and if you miss it the next big eclipse will be in 2026, which is expected to cover about the same amount of Britain in darkness.

Harbingers of doom and gloom throughout the centuries, this one being the first big eclipse in the UK in the social media age will probably cause nothing more than a slowing of WiFi and other mobile services as people rush to post pictures.

Manchester will be plunged into ninety per cent darkness as the moon passes in front of the sun between 8.45 and 10.00am but the further north you go, the greater the darkness.Parts of North Scotland will see around ninety four per cent coverage while the eclipse will be total in the Faroe Islands and the island of Svelbaard, the only inhabited places which will see a total eclipse.

The ancients would interpret eclipses in many ways, a dragon eating the sun god according to the Chinese, In Vietnam, people believed that a giant frog was devouring the Sun, while Viking cultures blamed wolves for eating the Sun and causing a solar eclipse.

In more recent times they foretold deaths of monarchs and even today solar eclipses are thought of as a danger to pregnant women and their unborn child. In many cultures, young children and pregnant women are asked to stay indoors during the eclipse.

There is no scientific evidence that solar eclipses can affect human behavior, health or the environment. Scientists, however, do emphasize that anyone watching a solar eclipse must protect their eyes.

There won’t be another total eclipse until 2090. That one is expected to be similar to the one in 1999, though it’ll be slightly further north and will happen as the sun sets, so don’t miss out in 2015.

Why does the Moon block out the Sun during a solar eclipse?

Jamie Sloan at Education Manager at the  Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre explains

The Moon orbits around the Earth, taking 28 days to do so. This gives rise to the different phases of the Moon that we see on Earth over a month. Once every 28 days the Moon is in front of the Earth; between the Earth and the Sun. This is called the New Moon phase, since the side of the Moon we can see is dark (it’s the opposite side that is being illuminated by the Sun). This is not necessarily a solar eclipse, however.

The Moon’s orbit is not flat around the Earth. Compared to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the Moon’s orbit is tilted by 5 degrees above and below it. This means that when the Moon is in its New Moon phase, it usually passes above or below the Sun in the sky. Just occasionally however, the Moon and Sun will line up and the Moon will block out the Sun, causing a solar eclipse.

Solar eclipses cannot be seen everywhere on Earth; you need to be viewing the Moon from the right angle. During a solar eclipse the Moon casts a shadow on some parts of the Earth. If you’re standing under the shadow, you can see an eclipse as it passes over you.

During a total solar eclipse the Moon and Sun line up perfectly as they both appear to be the same size to us. This is often described as a bit of a ‘cosmic coincidence’. The Sun is huge compared to the Moon; 400 times as wide, but the Moon is also 400 times closer to us than the Sun. This makes them look the same size in the sky. This won’t be the case forever though. The distances to the Moon and the Sun are slowly changing. Each year the Earth is getting about 15cm further away from the Sun and the Moon is getting about 4cm further away from us. Best enjoy these solar eclipses whilst we can then, in a few million years they won’t be as good!


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