A total eclipse as seen from the northern tip of Australia on November 13, 2012.
If you happen to find yourself in Southeast Asia this week, be sure to look up and enjoy a rare and mind-blowing total solar eclipse. It will occur on March 8 from 8:38 to 8:42 p.m EST. The best place to see it will be from Indonesia, or along a tiny strip of islands in the Pacific Ocean. If you haven't booked airfare, you can still watch it online at Slooh or NASA TV. The next total solar eclipse visible from North America will occur on August 21, 2017.
WHAT IS A SOLAR ECLIPSE?
When the Moon crosses in front of the Sun, blotting it out, you get a solar eclipse. It can be a partial solar eclipse, in which things don't quite line up and the Moon seems to take a "bite" out of the Sun, or an annular solar eclipse, in which the Moon is near its apogee, and thus too far from the Earth to block the Sun entirely. (The result of such an eclipse is the Moon seemingly surrounded by a ring of fire.) When orbital dynamics cooperate, however, and the Moon is near to the Earth (at its perigee) and blocks out the Sun entirely, you get a total solar eclipse. During such an event, day is all but turned into night.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
For one thing, because it's simply a spectacular, awe-inducing sight. For most of us, a total solar eclipse is an almost primal way to experience the solar system and the sweep of celestial bodies along their orbits. It suggests our small place in the infinite universe, and is a basic reminder that things are happening out there, and that we are but a microscopic part of it.
For space scientists, a total eclipse is a rare and wonderful opportunity to study the Sun without having to contend with its blinding face. According to Phys.org, during the brief eclipse today, NASA scientists in Indonesia (where technically it will already be tomorrow) intend to use a special polarization camera to "take 59 several-second exposures of the Sun in just over three minutes, capturing data on the innermost parts of the Sun's volatile, superhot atmosphere—a region we can only observe during total solar eclipses when the Sun's overwhelmingly bright face is completely blocked by the Moon."
The Sun's corona—the lower part of its atmosphere—holds answers to mysteries surrounding solar winds and coronal mass ejections, which are bursts of gas and electromagnetic radiation.
WATCHING IT LIVE, VIRTUALLY
Slooh, a technology company that specializes in web-connected telescopes and public outreach, will broadcast a livestream of the eclipse from Indonesia. A team of astronomers will be commenting on the event and explaining the science at work. Slooh's Star Share camera will also be enabled, allowing web viewers to take pictures of the eclipse remotely and share them on social media. NASA, meanwhile, will broadcast the eclipse from Micronesia, and will have solar scientists on hand to answer questions from the public. NASA's Twitter ID for the event is @NASASunEarth, and the hashtag it will be using on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter is #eclipse2016. Don't miss it!