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Our 2024 Eclipse… Mother Nature’s Cosmic Gift

       As shown by the accompanying illustration, a solar eclipse occurs when the motion of the moon around the earth happens to place the moon so that to some degree it blocks the sun’s light that reaches our planet, that is, it casts a shadow on our planet.   This alignment has to be so exact that for most observers, even when the moon is close to looking like it could block the sun, it doesn’t quite line up – no eclipse.  Perhaps for some observers the moon will appear to cover just a part of the sun —  an area of the earth is in the moon’s penumbra, a partial eclipse.  And even rarer,  sometimes the alignment is so straight on that a relatively small area on the earth will be in the moon’s full (umbra) shadow – a total solar eclipse.  

      For any given spot on the earth, a total solar eclipse occurs less often than once in 300 years: rarer than a “once in a lifetime” event, unless you are one of the sturdier Greenland sharks.  For anywhere else in the universe, it may well be that a total eclipse such as we have, where the moon just barely covers the sun so that the main body of the sun disappears but the spectacular glowing corona of the sun’s outer atmosphere is visible, may never occur — at least for a planet having life intelligent enough to appreciate it. 

      To allow showing the total shadow (“umbra”) and partial eclipse shadow (“penumbra”), the NASA diagram above does not attempt to show accurately the relative sizes and separation distances of the moon, earth and sun.   Addressing the fine print at the bottom of the diagram, to fully appreciate how remarkable our eclipses are, these sizes and distances are worth examining in more detail.

      Sizes: Consider a scale model with the sun the size of a basketball.  The earth would be represented by a tiny ball of diameter 0.08 inches, a little less than the size of a pinhead, and the moon a quarter of that… barely a speck.  

      Distances: If the sun/basketball is directly below a basket on a standard college or pro basketball court, the pinhead/earth should be placed almost directly under the opposite basket, all the way across the court – some 85 feet away.  The distance of the speck/moon from the pinhead/earth on this scale would be a little more than 2 and a half inches.

      Eclipse: The tiny speck/moon, two+ inches away from the pinhead/earth and completing an orbit once a month, happens to align directly on the 85 foot line between earth and sun.  The moon doesn’t come close to having a shadow large enough to cover the whole earth, but it is just the right distance so that it blocks part of the sun for part of the earth and sometimes totally blocks the sun for a relatively small area of the earth.      

      How can such a pipsqueak moon ever hope to challenge the mighty sun?

      Answer.  It can’t – at least not for long.  Mother Nature, perhaps to give the underdog – and us — a thrill, however momentary, on occasion arranges for that speck moon to pass precisely in a line between pinhead earth and far away basketball sun.  We observers are on a spinning earth…in Burlington, we’re moving faster than 750 mph just from the spin!  Besides that, Earth, moon and sun are all traveling on their various paths through space.  

      Skittering by in just a few minutes, moon should say to sun, “Just kidding, your highness.  I’ll be on my way now.”  And sun, with more important duties, like controlling larger planets like Jupiter and Saturn and making sure to keep its own proper place in the outer reach of our Milky Way Galaxy, should say nothing –  tolerant in the realization that on a galactic scale, though mighty in comparison with pin-head planets, it too is a pipsqueak, just another little dot among billions of stars in the Milky Way. 

      It is true that in the universe at large, there are surely many planets and many moons.  How many if any of these other planets have life capable of the awareness and appreciation we humans can have, that’s unknown…estimates range from zero to gazillions.  But for all of the circumstances to arise –  intelligent-life planet, moon just the right size, distance and orbit alignment on occasion to barely cover the view of its sun – this has to be a rarity of rarities. 

      Except for us, April 8, 2024.