On Saturday morning, October 14, an annular solar eclipse will cross the skies of the Southwestern United States, allowing viewers to see a dazzling “ring of fire” surround the shadowy new moon.
This rare phenomenon won’t occur again in the U.S. for more than 20 years, so astronomers are encouraging those who can to get outside and observe safely. Elsewhere in the country, skywatchers will be able to catch a glimpse of a partial solar eclipse, in which the moon obscures just a portion of the sun.
While this weekend’s event may not be as hyped as the total solar eclipse that will darken skies next April, it’s still not to be missed. Here’s everything you should know about the upcoming spectacle.
When and where will the eclipse happen?
In the United States, the annular eclipse will begin in Oregon at 9:13 a.m. Pacific time and end in Texas at 12:03 p.m. Central time, per NASA. It will cross through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and Central America, then move through Colombia and Brazil before ending at sunset in the Atlantic Ocean.
People at all locations in the continental U.S. will have a chance see at least a partial eclipse, but only those in Oregon and the Southwest will be able to view the spectacular “ring of fire.” This phenomenon won’t occur in the country again until 2046, so if you’re on the fence about hopping in a car, bus or plane to reach the eclipse path, it may be well worth it!
A total eclipse will be visible across much of the U.S. on April 8, 2024, and those outside the path of totality will be treated to a partial eclipse.
The science behind a solar eclipse
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, casting a shadow on our planet. Three main types of solar eclipses can occur: total, partial and annular. (Sometimes, when more than one of these phenomena happen in tandem, the Earth experiences a hybrid eclipse.)
We get to see total eclipses because of a lucky cosmic coincidence—the moon, which is 400 times smaller than the sun, is also 400 times nearer to Earth than the sun is. As a result, the two objects appear to be the same size in our sky. So, on the rare occasions when the moon passes exactly in front of the sun from Earth’s perspective, it blocks out the sun completely. The sky darkens, as it would at dawn or dusk, and the sun’s corona—the outer atmosphere that’s usually obscured by the star’s glare—becomes visible. A total eclipse is the only type during which viewers can temporarily take off their protective eclipse glasses.
The moon, however, travels around Earth in an oval-shaped orbit. Sometimes, a solar eclipse happens when the moon is at or near its farthest point from Earth, making it appear smaller in our sky. This creates an annular eclipse: The sun does not get completely blocked out, but instead, a brilliant “ring of fire” forms around the moon.
A partial solar eclipse occurs when the sun, moon and Earth are not perfectly lined up. Only part of the sun appears covered in this case, giving it a crescent shape.
Eclipses present a unique opportunity to study our atmosphere under uncommon conditions, per NASA. During the 2017 total solar eclipse, the space agency funded 11 studies to collect data only available during these special events.
Tips for watching the annular eclipse
Because the moon will never completely cover the sun this Saturday, you will need to view the eclipse through eclipse glasses or an indirect solar viewer for its entire duration.
“There will be no time this October when anybody can look directly at the sun without eye protection,” Rick Fienberg, project manager of the Solar Eclipse Task Force at the American Astronomical Society, tells Space.com’s Jamie Carter. “It is dangerously bright.”
Eclipse glasses are not the same as regular sunglasses. Eclipse glasses block out about 99.9 percent of light rays, as Russell Van Gelder, a clinical spokesperson and past president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told Time magazine’s Lisa Marie Segarra in 2017. Regular sunglasses only block about 60 percent of light rays, so they are not safe to use for eclipse viewing, per the publication.
If you are purchasing your eclipse glasses online, make sure you buy from a reputable company or organization. Before the eclipse of 2017, counterfeit glasses flooded the marketplace for weeks. To avoid fake solar viewers, stick to the suppliers suggested by the American Astronomical Association. Before this Saturday, you should inspect your solar filter for scratches or tears and discard any damaged devices.
If you can’t get your hands on eclipse glasses by Saturday, don’t despair—you can indirectly watch the event using a DIY pinhole camera made from cardstock, aluminum foil, tape and a pencil. You should never look at the sun directly through your pinhole device, nor should you view it directly through lenses in camera viewfinders, telescopes or binoculars.
Remember to check your local weather forecast to make sure your view won’t be obscured by clouds, and pick a safe location away from roads to look up at the sky.
Eclipse history and culture
The word eclipse comes from the ancient Greek word ekleipsis, which means “abandonment.” The ancient Greeks believed a total eclipse was a bad omen—a sign that the gods would punish their king. Greek astronomers kept track of the sun, moon and planets using an ancient device called the Antikythera mechanism, which also helped predict lunar and solar eclipses.
The first eclipse recorded in human history may have been in Ireland on November 30, 3340 B.C.E. There, researchers found a series of carvings in stone that some interpreted as depictions of a solar eclipse. Other physical records of past eclipses have been uncovered across the world, including 2,500-year-old clay tablets from Babylonia. Many other ancient and present-day cultures have held different beliefs and practices surrounding eclipses.
This year, the eclipse’s path will pass directly through Indigenous lands in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. In Navajo (Diné) culture, the eclipse is associated with death and renewal, and it’s a time for reflection.
“Unlike some other tribes, Navajos have very traditional protocol that involves the eclipse,” Nancy Maryboy, a Cherokee and Navajo cultural astronomer and president of the Indigenous Education Institute, says in a video. “And part of it is this whole idea of reverence and respect for what’s happening in the sky.”
Traditionally, Navajos would go into their homes and sit silently in reverence during an eclipse, without eating or drinking, Maryboy says in the video. While many still follow that practice today, some in the Navajo Nation will decide to view the eclipse, she says.
“It’s really up to the individual,” Maryboy tells Katrina Miller, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Ana Ionova of the New York Times. “There’s no right way.”
Because of cultural beliefs, all Navajo Tribal Parks will be closed 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mountain time on Saturday.