A ‘Ring of Fire’ Eclipse Dazzled Viewers in Asia and the Middle East

This celestial event occurs when the moon is near its farthest point from Earth, allowing the blazing edges of the sun to shine around the edges

Ring of Fire
The moon moves in front of the sun in a rare "ring of fire" solar eclipse as seen from Tanjung Piai, Malaysia on December 26, 2019. Sadiq ASYRAF / AFP via Getty Images

From Saudi Arabia to Guam, people across the Middle East and Asia were dazzled by the last solar eclipse of the decade on Thursday—a celestial phenomenon that produced a “ring of fire” in the sky.

The event is known as an “annular eclipse” (from “annulus,” the Latin word for “ring”) and happened when three different factors fell into place, explain Vigdis Hocken and Aparna Kher for Timeanddate.com. As is the case with other solar eclipses, the moon aligned between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the sun and casting its shadow onto our planet. On Thursday, the moon was also close to its apogee, or farthest point from the Earth, and therefore did not cover the sun completely, allowing the blazing edges of the star to shine around the edges as the eclipse reached its maximum point.

"If the moon's orbit were perfectly circular ... all eclipses would be the same,” explains Joe Palca of NPR. “[B]ut the moon's orbit is elliptical, meaning sometimes it's farther away from Earth than other times. When the moon is farther away, it appears smaller in the sky. That also means that when it passes in front of the sun, it doesn't completely obscure the disk of the sun.”

The event began at 9:23 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and the first “ring of fire” was visible to spectators in Saudi Arabia by 10:34 p.m. EST, according to Tariq Malik of Space.com. The annular phase could also be seen in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and Guam. The point of greatest duration occurred over Singapore and Indonesia, where the eclipse blocked out more than 90 percent of the sun and lasted more than three minutes, reports NPR’s Bill Chappell. Skywatchers outside of the 73-mile central path would have been able to see a partial eclipse.

The entire eclipse spanned around three-and-a-half hours. In India, reports the Agence France-Presse, a cricket match was delayed as people gathered to witness the eclipse, and the state of Odisha declared a public holiday. In Indonesia, “hundreds of people gathered outside Jakarta Planetarium to watch the event using protective glasses.” Social media users tried to see if eggs would stand on their narrow side due to increased gravity during the eclipse—a popular, if debunked, theory.

“Although eclipses aren’t rare ... to see an annular or total solar eclipse, you do have to be in the right place at the right time,” Rick Fienberg, an astronomer with the American Astronomical Society, tells Derrick Bryson Taylor of the New York Times.

There have been 24 solar eclipses since 2010, three of which occurred this year, according to Malik. And 2020 will see two annular eclipses. The first, due to take place on June 21, will be visible from central Africa, southeast Asia and China. The second will be visible from South America and Antarctica on December 14.

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