A solar eclipse glossary

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, August 14, 2014

Here at Astronomy magazine, we definitely want you to be prepared for the total solar eclipse that will sweep across the United States on August 21, 2017. So that we’re all speaking the same language, we’ve prepared a brief glossary, which includes a few illustrations from past issues.

Altitude and azimuth. // Astronomy: Roen Kelly
altitude — the angular height of a point or celestial object above the horizon measured from 0° (on the horizon) to 90° (at the zenith).


angular diameter — the apparent size of a celestial object, measured in degrees, minutes, and/or seconds, as seen from Earth; for example, the average angular size of the Sun and the Moon, as seen from Earth, is 31 arcminutes, or 0.52°.


angular distance — the distance between two celestial bodies expressed in degrees, minutes, and/or seconds of arc.

Apogee, aphelion, perigee, and perihelion. // Astronomy: Roen Kelly
aphelion — the position of an object in solar orbit when it lies farthest from the Sun.


apogee — the position of the Moon or other object in Earth orbit when it lies farthest from our planet.


azimuth — the angular distance (from 0° to 360°) to an object measured eastward along the horizon from north to a line passing through the object and at a right angle to the horizon.


Baily’s beads. // Tunç Tezel
Baily’s beads — during a total solar eclipse, the effect seen just before and just after totality when only a few points of sunlight are visible at the edge of the Moon, caused by the irregularity of the lunar surface.


chromosphere — the region of the Sun’s atmosphere between its photosphere and its corona; sometimes briefly visible just before or after totality as an intense red glow at the Moon’s edge.


centerline — the midpoint of the width of the Moon’s shadow on Earth; the centerline is the location for the maximum duration of totality.

Corona. // Charley Manske
corona — the shell of thin gas that extends out some distance from the Sun’s surface normally visible only during totality.


Diamond ring. // Adam Clayson
diamond ring — the effect just prior to second contact or just after third contact of a total solar eclipse when a small portion of the Sun’s disk plus its corona produce an effect similar to a ring with a brilliant diamond.


disk — the visible surface of any heavenly body.


ecliptic — the circle described by the Sun’s apparent annual path through the stars; the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun.


First contact. // David Harrington
first contact — during a solar eclipse, the moment that the Moon makes contact with the Sun; the beginning of the eclipse.


fourth contact — during a solar eclipse, the moment that the disk of the Moon breaks contact with the Sun; the end of the eclipse.

magnitude — the amount of the Sun's diameter the Moon covers during an eclipse; see obscuration.


The phases of the Moon. // Holley Y. Bakich
New Moon — the phase where the Moon seems completely unlit; solar eclipses can occur only at New Moon.


nodes — regarding solar eclipses, the two points at which the Moon’s orbital plane intersects the ecliptic; eclipses can occur only near nodes.

obscuration — the amount of the Sun's area the Moon covers during an eclipse; see magnitude.


penumbra — the less dark outer region of the Moon’s shadow; an observer in the penumbra sees a partial solar eclipse.


perigee — the position of the Moon or other object in Earth orbit when it lies closest to our planet.


perihelion — the position of an object in solar orbit when it lies closest to the Sun.

photosphere — the visible surface of the Sun where it emits light.


Prominence. // Paolo Porcellana
prominence — a large-scale, gaseous formation above the surface of the Sun usually occurring over regions of solar activity such as sunspot groups.


Saros cycle — a time period equal to 6,585.3 days between which similar eclipses occur.


second contact — during a total solar eclipse, the moment the Moon covers 100 percent of the Sun’s disk; the instant totality begins.


shadow bands — faint ripples of light sometimes seen on flat, light–colored surfaces just before and just after totality.


solar flare a sudden burst of particles (protons, electrons, etc.) and electromagnetic energy from the solar photosphere most often seen silhouetted against space at the edge of the Sun, although they also can be seen against the Sun's disk.


The SolaREDi from DayStar Filters is one example of a solar telescope. This one passes only Hydrogen-alpha light, which allows you to view solar flares and prominences. // Courtesy DayStar Filters
solar telescope — a telescope whose design is dedicated to observing the Sun.

Sunspots. // John Chumack
sunspot a temporarily cooler (and therefore darker) region on the Sun’s photosphere caused by magnetic field variations.


syzygy — the lineup of three celestial bodies; for a solar eclipse, the lineup is the Sun, the Moon, and Earth.


third contact — during a total solar eclipse, the instant totality ends.


Umbra and penumbra. // Holley Y. Bakich
umbra — the dark inner region of a shadow cast by a solar system object illuminated by the Sun.


Universal Time (UT) — also known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT); standard time kept on the Greenwich meridian (longitude = 0°); astronomers use UT to coordinate observations of celestial events.

NOTE: I've written two other blogs you'll want to check out about the 2017 eclipse:
25 facts you should know about the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse
Two dozen tips for the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse

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