July 31, 2008 at 8:45 PM ET
Exploratorium, San Francisco
Robyn Higdon, a producer from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, looks up from
the broadcast site in Yiwu, China, during preparations for Friday's live coverage of a
total solar eclipse. Check the Exploratorium's Flickr site for more images.
There's nothing like seeing a total solar eclipse with your own eyes - but if you just couldn't make it to Friday's remote totality zone, you have at least three chances to catch the event online in real time. And if you'd rather sleep in, you can still catch up on what you missed. It's the next best thing to being there.
Unlike a lunar eclipse, which can be seen by half of the world, total solar eclipses are visible only along a narrow track for mere minutes at a time. In the totality zone, the moon's disk covers the sun completely, producing daytime darkness. The sun's shimmery corona, or outer atmosphere, becomes visible around the dark disk.
Such blackouts occur only when the moon is precisely lined up between the sun and the earth, which doesn't happen at every new moon. From a global perspective, total solar eclipses aren't all that rare: The last one occurred two years ago, and the next one is due in a little less than a year. But the track of totality is determined by orbital mechanics rather than a market survey, and so eclipse enthusiasts often have to travel to Earth's remote frontiers.
Friday's eclipse is a classic case: The moon's blackest shadow touches down in northern Canada at sunrise (5:20 a.m. ET), then races eastward as the world turns, zooming through Greenland, the Arctic, Siberia, Mongolia and China. The eclipse's last hurrah occurs at sunset in west-central China (7:20 a.m. ET).
To get a sense of how the shadow moves across the planet, check out this animated image from Andrew Sinclair. And to see how the eclipse looks from different locations at different times, take a look at Larry Koehn's Shadow and Substance Web site.
The main event in Xinjiang
The time spread is what makes it possible to see the eclipse online several times, depending on how many hardy souls are willing to set up Webcams (or, preferably, full-fledged broadcast operations) at locations along the track of totality.
The headliner act would have to be the hourlong show broadcast live from western China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Exploratorium science center in San Francisco will present commentary and demonstrations from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. ET, in partnership with NASA and the University of California at Berkeley.
In addition to the science, you'll get a sense of the excitement surrounding the event: According to China's Xinhua news agency, the place is already a madhouse. The climax comes at 7:08 a.m. ET, when the area experiences two minutes of totality.
We'll be broadcasting the show at msnbc.com, but you can also get to it through the Exploratorium or NASA. You can even meet up with your virtual pals in Second Life to share the experience. For those who prefer their totality straight up, there will be a telescope-only video feed showing the eclipse's progress between 6 and 8:15 a.m. ET.
If you miss the show, we'll provide a video clip showing totality as part of our eclipse roundup.
The warmup act in Novosibirsk
Even before the eclipse passes over China, you can catch totality online from Siberia, courtesy of the Novosibirsk Guide. The eclipse is due to go total there from 6:44 to 6:46 a.m. ET.
The Russian city of Novosibirsk is also the base of operations for Live! Eclipse 2008, the latest Webcast production from Japan's Live! Universe crew. The Live team has broadcast 14 eclipses from spots around the world. Its coverage of Friday's event will begin at 5 a.m. ET, climaxing with the two minutes of totality at 6:44.
The follow-up at Weinan
The area around China's ancient imperial city of Xi'an - well-known for its terracotta army - is near the tail end of the totality track. As a result, it gets less than two minutes of totality, starting at 7:19 a.m. ET. The University of North Dakota's eclipse team will be broadcasting from Weinan, 24 miles (39 kilometers) from Xi'an.
The North Dakotans not only offer the usual Webcast and blog, but they also provide a chatroom where viewers can ooh and ahh (or kvetch about the weather or the bandwidth). However, you'll want to make sure you've installed all the software required for the big show.
Outside the totality zone, billions of people in Canada, Europe and Asia are in a position to see a partial solar eclipse, which has its own kind of appeal. (If you're in the partial-eclipse zone, be sure to wear adequate eye protection when you're watching the event.) Taiwan's Atlaspost is promising online eclipse coverage (much of it in Chinese), and Norway's Astrofoto will have a Webcam going as well.
To learn about the science behind a solar eclipse, check out our "Moonshadow" interactive graphic. (We have a similar graphic for lunar eclipses, too.) You can also click through a time line of historic eclipses, test your knowledge of eclipse lore and see the "greatest hits" of eclipse imagery.
For detailed information about eclipses past, present and future, you just can't do any better than the NASA Eclipse Web site, maintained by Fred Espenak, the researcher known as "Mr. Eclipse." You can hear some of Espenak's words of wisdom in NASA's collection of podcasts.
Another valuable resource is SpaceWeather.com, which also keeps track of auroral displays, meteor showers, solar activity and much more. Do you have other eclipse resources to add? Pass them along as a comment below. Then, settle in and watch the skies ... on the Internet.
Update for 6:55 a.m. ET Aug. 1: I just caught the tail end of the total eclipse from Novosibirsk via Live! Eclipse. You can still watch the partial phase of the eclipse, but you have to go to the Web site's main page to see the coverage. The navigation to the live video wasn't as clear as it could have been. Also, I wasn't able to connect with the Novosibirsk Guide coverage. But our video stream of the Exploratorium coverage from China is working just great - and totality is coming up in just a few minutes.
Update for 7:20 a.m. ET Aug. 1: Whew! That was close! Clouds obscured the Exploratorium's view of the eclipse until just before the total phase. They moved away just in time to provide a good view of the corona, including a prominence that looked like a licking flame.
If you haven't installed the software already for the North Dakota coverage, it's too late to do it in time for seeing the view from Xi'an. However, you'll be able to replay the Xinjiang view anytime you want once we've added the video clip to our eclipse roundup. Just to emphasize that point, you'll soon be able to click here to watch the eclipse. The Exploratorium will be archiving the video as well, and we thank them for their cooperation.
You'll soon be able to find video on demand (VOD) of the view from Novosibirsk as well, on the Live! Eclipse site. If you run across any other eclipse clips, please add the Web links in your comments below.