Hybrid solar eclipse on day of Pope's funeral
Wednesday, 06 April , 2005, 03:20
Paris: Those who say eclipses herald history-shaping events will find support for their superstition when, on Friday, the Sun will be briefly plunged into darkness on the day of Pope John Paul II's funeral.
Astronomers, though, say the eclipse, while of a rare and intriguing type, was calculated long ago and is simply part of a ballet in celestial physics between the Sun, Earth and Moon.
It will be visible on Friday along an arc ranging from the southwestern Pacific to South America, at a time it will already be night in Rome.
The event will be a rare type called a "hybrid eclipse," expert Fred Espenak says on his website (http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov).
Along the central part of its path, some sections will have a total eclipse, in which the Moon will completely obscure the Sun.
On other sections of the track, though, it will be an annular eclipse - the Moon will appear to have a brilliant, blazing ring around it.
Total eclipses occur when the Moon comes between the Earth and the Sun, completely obscuring the solar disk for a few minutes and illuminating the landscape in an eerie, sepulchral light. The eclipse follows a West-to-East track that lasts several hours until the alignment ends.
Hybrid eclipses occur because of the curvature of the Earth, says Espenak.
Sometimes the Moon's shadow touches the Earth's surface, while at others it falls just short, thus providing the "ring" effect.
Friday's event will lasting three hours and 24 minutes, according to Espenak's calculations.
It begins at 1854 GMT southeast of New Zealand, then races eastwards on a line north of the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and finally Venezuela, where there will be a 33-second annular eclipse at sunset at 2218.
People living in New Zealand and to the north and south of this central line, including most of the southern United States, will see a partial eclipse - the Sun will appear to have had a "bite" taken out of it.
Total eclipses have often seen as the harbingers of great events, from droughts and floods to failed harvests and the downfall of kings.
In ancient China, the belief was that an eclipse was caused when the gods dispatched a dragon to eat the Sun. The monster then had to be chased away with dances, incantations, the clashing of cymbals and gongs, and the unleashing of arrows and fireworks.
Even the word "eclipse" comes from a Greek word, "ekleipsis", which means to fail or be abandoned.
"The Sun has perished out of heaven and an evil mist hovers over all," was Homer's horrified account of an eclipse in The Odyssey.
Two eclipses occurred near Palestine in AD29 and AD33 - events that, for some Christians, give astronomical proof to the biblical account that the sky darkened at Jesus' death on the cross.
Total solar eclipses happen about once every 18 months or so, although two partial or annular eclipses occur somewhere on Earth each year. The next hybrid eclipse will take place on April 20 2023, says Espenak.
Anyone viewing an eclipse should always wear proper eye protection, using filters against ultraviolet rays that can damage the retina.