Discover six famous eclipses from the last century and a half, featuring beautiful and hauntingly unique images from around the globe.
Celestial events like lunar and solar eclipses have awed and frightened people for generations — and inspired countless stories. But, only within the last century and a half have we been able to capture and study them in photographs. During a solar eclipse, the new moon passes between the sun and Earth, blocking out the light of the sun. In contrast, in a lunar eclipse Earth passes between the sun and the full moon, blocking the sun’s light from reflecting off the moon. In pictures of a total lunar eclipse, the moon turns red. Meanwhile in images of a total solar eclipse, the moon fully covers the sun.
Although photographs of solar and lunar eclipses have helped us to understand the science behind them, their magic hasn’t waned throughout the centuries, and those stories of old continue to haunt our imaginations.
Let’s take a look at six famous eclipses.
1. Solar Eclipse of July 18, 1860
Observations made by Warren de la Rue at Rivabellosa (Spain) during the total solar eclipse. Image via Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock.
When British astronomer Warren de la Rue set out on a borrowed Royal Navy troopship to photograph this eclipse from Rivabellosa, Spain, he not only brought with him the newly-minted Kew Photoheliograph (a combination telescope and camera, designed by de la Rue himself), but he also set up an on-site darkroom laboratory, complete with assistants, porters, and interpreters.
The Kew heliograph being used during the British astronomical expedition to view the total solar eclipse in Spain, 1860. The temporary observation point, with the Kew heliograph inside, surrounded by astronomers. Warren de la Rue took the first photographs of a total eclipse on this expedition. Image via Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock.
Of the forty-plus photographs captured during that fateful summer day, two covered the phase known as totality, revealing details that would’ve been invisible to the human eye. It was one of the first total eclipses to be photographed. A daguerreotype on the subject had been created as early as 1842, though it no longer survives. More attempts followed, but this 1860 eclipse marked the most concerted and involved effort of the time.
Warren de la Rue’s photograph of a total solar eclipse at Rivabellosa, Spain. The first solar eclipse to be photographed. Image via Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock.
De la Rue’s images are also significant in that they verified that the prominences seen during an eclipse were, in fact, solar, rather than lunar or Earthly. The astronomer/adventurer determined that fact after comparing his images with those made by another astronomer. Because the flares were identical when viewed from two different spots, he could confidently say they originated from the sun and not the moon or the earth.
Warren de la Rue’s photograph of the eclipse in 1860. Image via Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock.
On the morning of July 18th, The New York Times released an article on the eclipse, touching on the debate surrounding the origin of the flares and underscoring the importance of the event: “Total eclipses of the sun are very rare, very remarkable, and therefore very startling phenomena.” Indeed.
2. Einstein’s Eclipse of 1919
The Curvature of Light: Evidence from British Observers’ photographs at the total eclipse of the sun, May 1919. Image via Historia/Shutterstock.
By 1919, the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein had already published his general theory of relativity, but there wasn’t much experimental evidence to back it. That changed on May 29th when the English astronomers Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir Frank Watson Dyson made two expeditions to photograph a solar eclipse visible through much of Africa and South America.
A page from the illustrated London News reporting on a new theory expounded by Professor Eddington, Dr. Crommelin, and Sir Frank Watson Dyson. Image via Historia/Shutterstock.
Up until that point, Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity were accepted as fact. However, emerging research threatened to topple our understanding of the universe. Einstein believed that massive objects, such as the sun, bent the fabric of spacetime. Therefore, he posited, light traveling close to the sun would bend as well. He predicted that during a solar eclipse, when the sun’s light was blocked by the moon, nearby stars would appear to shift positions. The changes would be too slight for the human eye, but they could be measured.
A letter from Einstein to his friend, Albert Karr, thanking him for his congratulations on the success of the 1919 solar eclipse. Image via Christies/Bournemouth News/Shutterstock.
If Einstein was right, Eddington and Dyson knew that the stars would appear in different positions during the eclipse than they would on an ordinary night. But, they had to move quickly to get their shots as they had just over six minutes of totality.
Of course, they succeeded, and their findings propelled Einstein to worldwide superstardom. In November, The New York Times ran a headline reading, “Lights All Askew in the Heavens: Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations.”
3. Solar Eclipse of June 30, 1973
The total solar eclipse of June 30th, 1973 was unusual in that a small group of scientists from around the globe set out to follow its path. They used a prototype Concorde to “chase” the moon’s shadow as it made its way over the Sahara Desert.
The solar eclipse in June 1973. Image via Associated Newspapers/Shutterstock.
If the plan worked, they’d get an estimated seventy minutes of totality, as opposed to the seven they’d get from a stationary point on the ground. Traveling at more than twice the speed of sound, the scientists aboard Concorde 001 observed the scene through specially-designed portholes. In the end, they landed after having viewed totality for a remarkable seventy-four minutes.
4. First Eclipse of the Third Millennium
The shadow advances on the moon as seen in the town of Bansko, Bulgaria, some 200km south of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, on January 9, 2001. Image via Mladen Antonov/EPA/Shutterstock.
A photo montage showing the shadow advancing on the moon, as seen in the town of Bansko, Bulgaria. Image via Mladen Antonov/EPA/Shutterstock.
On January 9th, 2001, a total lunar eclipse was visible through parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. As sunlight scattered through the Earth’s atmosphere, the surface of the moon glowed a deep, dark red. Totality lasted for an hour and two minutes. However, this event was predated by another total lunar eclipse on July 16, 2000, which lasted for an astonishing one hour and forty-seven minutes (you can see that one in the image below, taken from Tokyo, Japan).
A crescent with the shadow cast from the earth is seen between structures of a Tokyo tower during the lunar eclipse. Image via Naokazu Oinuma/AP/Shutterstock.
The 2001 eclipse was unique in its own right, however, because it was the first of the millennium. It had been nearly a decade since the last major volcanic eruption, and those in Africa arguably had the best view. “With the earth’s atmosphere quite clear at the moment, those with a good view will see the moon brick-red, perhaps with a tinge of blue,” Robert Massey from Britain’s Royal Observatory anticipated at the time.
The total lunar eclipse as seen in Kenya. The lunar eclipse lasted for about one hour. Image via Sayyid Azim/AP/Shutterstock.
5. The Great American Total Solar Eclipse
The diamond ring effect appears as the solar eclipse totality ends, over the Orchard Dale historical farm near Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The location, which is in the path of totality, is also at the point of greatest intensity. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
On August 21st, 2017, the first total solar eclipse for decades was visible over the United States, spanning coast to coast from Oregon to South Carolina. It was also the first since 1776 where the path of totality remained entirely within the United States. Millions of people lived along the path, with many more traveling to see the spectacle.
The solar eclipse totality ends over the Orchard Dale historical farm near Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The location, which is in the path of totality, is also at the point of greatest intensity. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
The moon covers the sun during a total eclipse near Redmond, Oregon. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
For two minutes and twenty-seven seconds, everything went dark. Birds flew about and frogs croaked, taking in the phenomenon. People cheered and wept. Experts hailed it as this generation’s moon landing. From the sun’s pearly corona to the fiery prominences, every detail captured the public imagination, drawing people together across small towns, big cities, and stark political divides.
The solar eclipse in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
The totality of the solar eclipse at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun Gap, Georgia. The thin path of totality will pass through portions of fourteen U.S. states, according to NASA. Image via Erik S Lesser/EPA/Shutterstock.
6. Lunar Eclipse of July 27, 2018
Satellite dish with a blood moon and Mars time-lapse of the lunar eclipse in Raisting, Germany. Image via Robert Seitz / imageBROKER/Shutterstock.
The longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st Century occurred on July 27th, 2018, with totality lasting for an hour and forty-three minutes. It was visible in Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. Coincidentally, Mars reached its opposition on the same day, making the event all the more spectacular.
This picture shows the moon during the total lunar eclipse in the sky of the West Bank city of Hebron. The longest “blood moon” eclipse (this century) began on July 27, coinciding with Mars’ closest approach in fifteen years, treating sky-gazers across the globe to a thrilling celestial spectacle. Unlike with a solar eclipse, viewers will need no protective eye gear to observe the rare display. Image via APAImages/Shutterstock.
During opposition, the sun, Earth, and Mars aligned, giving us the brightest view of the Martian planet since 2003, at just 35.9 million miles away from Earth. That means that for a select few in certain areas of the globe, there was a clear view of the Red Planet right next to the eclipsing full moon, also red. This lunar eclipse was just four minutes shy of the longest possible lunar eclipse to occur on Earth.
A full moon (top) rises as Mars (bottom) are seen not far from Kharkiv, Ukraine. The lunar eclipse on the night of July 27, 2018 will be the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st Century, with the event spanning for over four hours, and the total eclipse phase lasting for 103 minutes. Image via PAVLO PAKHOMENKO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
Cover image via Mladen Antonov/EPA/Shutterstock.
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