When the Sun Goes Dark

A Long Eclipse in an Exotic Land

Additional Images
Photo montage by Howard L. Cohen The last long duration total eclipse of the Sun took place eighteen years ago on July 11,1991 and lasted almost seven minutes (photo from Baja California Sur, Mexico). This year's total solar eclipse, with totality lasting up to six minutes 39 seconds, is the next in a cycle of long duration eclipses. Partial eclipses precede and follow totality as shown in this composite.

On July 22, a most wonderful and singular event will occur. In distant lands once considered by Europeans as the mysterious east, the Sun will undergo the longest duration total eclipse that anyone now alive will ever witness. A chilling wall of darkness will rush from the west and ghostly shadows will descend upon the earth. Stars and planets will appear as the sky consumes the Sun. For approximately six minutes the Sun will magically disappear and a black hole will open in the heavens, like an eerie cosmic eye bordered by crimson spikes and surrounded by a divine halo of white light. Nothing can prepare the mind for this. Science, magic and religion will have finally come together!

This will be the longest total eclipse of the Sun in nearly 20 years -- none will exceed this eclipse until 2132. This eclipse also comes during an auspicious time for astronomy, The International Year of Astronomy 2009 marking the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo.


Most people have never observed a total eclipse of the Sun. This is especially true for the continental United States where none have occurred in almost 30 years and none will occur until 2017. The paths of total solar eclipse are only visible in limited regions extending along a very narrow but long corridor often passing through vast stretches of ocean and sometimes unreachable land masses. These paths can also cross regions famous for startling scenery, prolific wildlife or magnificent treasures both old and modern. In fact, such eclipses provide an excuse for journeys to places that might otherwise go unseen.

Solar eclipses occur when the Moon passes between the Earth and Sun, partially or completely obscuring the Sun from our view as part or all of the Moon's shadow sweeps over the Earth's surface. Although solar eclipses come in several flavors (designated partial, annular or total), only total eclipses of the Sun produce one of nature's most awe-inspiring spectacles. Words or pictures cannot adequately describe the sight and feelings of these eclipses, an event that often brings chills and tears once seen and felt.

Many people may think they have seen a total eclipse of the Sun but usually most confuse a total solar eclipse with a partial or annular solar eclipse, or perhaps a total lunar eclipse. However, total eclipses of the Sun are unique events transcending most anything else one can imagine. To see the Sun turn into darkness during daylight is the closest we can come to seeing our familiar planet transformed into an alien world.

To see the 2009 event as a total eclipse, observers must place themselves within a long total eclipse path traversing nearly half Earth's surface but never more than160 miles wide. This path first begins early morning in India where monsoon rains may spoil this extraordinary event. Moving eastward, the path crosses Bhutan and then the vast southeastern regions of China where dramatic mountains often alternate with broad, lush green valleys. The total eclipse path finally enters the vast South Pacific Ocean south of Japan where totality will reach a maximum duration of six minutes and 39 seconds before waning out in waters 2000 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands.

Although cloudy summer weather and smog in eastern Asia can interfere with viewing this eclipse, China offers promising locations and the opportunity to visit this still mysterious land.

Here, the total eclipse occurs during midmorning before the day's heat builds and before summer storm clouds often form. In addition, China has worked hard to improve air quality and improve its infrastructure including roads and accommodations.

The wait for another long eclipse is now nearly over and 2009 eclipse tours are rapidly filling. Both eclipse enthusiasts and "virgin eclipse chasers" are anxious to combine the impressive memory of a total eclipse of the Sun with a journey to one of the world's most fascinating and breathtaking lands. §

Dr. Howard L. Cohen is an emeritus professor in the University of Florida's Department of Astronomy and a founding member of the Alachua Astronomy Club, Inc. He has been to eight total and annular solar eclipses. He and his wife Marian, an experienced travel agent, plan and escort astronomical tours. For more information about their upcoming tour to China contact Dr. Cohen at cohen@astro.ufl.edu.