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How to spot a lunar eclipse and that comet

A penumbral lunar eclipse not quite as deep as the one we’re about to see occurred over the Far East in November 2012. (Hong Kong Space Museum Photo via Sky & Telescope)
A penumbral lunar eclipse not quite as deep as the one we’re about to see occurred over the Far East in November 2012. (Hong Kong Space Museum Photo via Sky & Telescope)

Tonight’s the night when a lunar eclipse dims the full moon, and when a recently discovered green comet comes closest to our planet. But unless you know what’s coming, you’re almost certain to miss them.

You may miss them anyway, depending on the sky conditions. The forecast for the Seattle area calls for partly cloudy skies with a 20 percent chance of rain.

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Check out a ‘Ring of Fire’ eclipse over Africa

Image: Annular eclipse
A series of images shows the progression of the Sept. 1 annular solar eclipse as seen from Reunion Island. (Credit: Slooh / Weathernews Japan)

An annular solar eclipse swept across Africa today, treating skywatchers to a “Ring of Fire” eclipse and whetting appetites for next August’s all-American total eclipse.

The eclipse occurred in the middle of the night, Seattle time, but it was prime time for a roughly 100-mile wide swath of territory stretching from Gabon on Africa’s west coast to Mozambique, Madagascar and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.Those places are where the “Ring of Fire” effect was visible in all its glory.

Annular solar eclipses are similar to total eclipses, except that the orbital positions of the sun, moon and Earth are such that the moon doesn’t quite cover up all of the solar disk. As a result, the dark moon is surrounded by a blazing O.

About 3,000 eclipse fans gathered on Reunion Island to witness the spectacle, Reuters reported. “I saw a solar eclipse … but I have never seen an annular solar eclipse,” Austrian tourist Beate Sosz was quoted as saying. “It is great.”

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One year before eclipse, spots are filling up fast

Image: 2012 eclipse
The sun’s corona gleams during a total solar eclipse seen from the northern tip of Australia in November 2012. (Credit: Romeo Durscher via NASA)

It’s exactly one year before the “Great American Eclipse” sweeps across the continent, but depending on where you want to stay, it’s already too late to make a reservation.

On one level, the solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, should rank among the most accessible such phenomena for Americans – and it’s not to be missed. Partial phases of the eclipse should be visible, weather permitting, from most of North America. For example, up to 92 percent of the sun’s disk will be covered as seen from Seattle.

On another level, the eclipse is a hot ticket: Its total phase will be visible only along aroughly 70-mile-wide track that extends from Oregon to South Carolina. Totality means the moon blots out the sun’s entire disk, turning daylight to nighttime for up to two and a half minutes.

Statistically speaking, most of the best places to go for clear skies in August are in a swath of the West ranging from central Oregon to Nebraska. And by some measures, the absolute best is Madras, Ore.

But just try getting a room in Oregon.

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Solar eclipse spotted from air and space

Image: Solar eclipse
The moon’s shadow can be seen as a dark spot at upper right in this picture of Earth’s full disk, as captured Tuesday by Japan’s Himawari 8 satellite. (Credit: NICT)

A total solar eclipse is a rare and thrilling sight, but seeing it from a height makes it even more exotic.

Check out the view from Japan’s Himawari 8 weather satellite, stationed more than 22,000 miles above the Pacific Ocean in geostationary orbit. The satellite was perfectly placed to track the moon’s shadow as it sped from west of Indonesia to east of Hawaii on March 8. (Or was that March 9?)

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Watch an eclipse online – and get set for 2017

Image: 2012 eclipse
The sun’s corona gleams during a total solar eclipse seen from the northern tip of Australia in November 2012. (Credit: Romeo Durscher via NASA)

This week’s total solar eclipse is a bad-news, good-news, even-better-news situation for skywatchers in the United States.

Solar eclipses are must-see astronomical events that occur when the moon is positioned just right to block the sun’s disk, as seen from Earth. The eclipse that unfolds on Tuesday is the only time during 2016 that anyone can see the sun totally blotted out.

The bad news is that the total eclipse is visible only in the Asia-Pacific region. The moon’s shadow rolls eastward across the Indian and Pacific oceans, beginning at sunrise just west of Indonesia and ending at sunset just east of Hawaii. If you’re in the United States, you’ll totally miss seeing totality in person.

The good news is that in this age of the Internet, you can still get a peek online.

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Make the most of the supermoon eclipse

Image: Seattle lunar eclipse
A total lunar eclipse shines dully over Seattle’s Space Needle in 2008. (Credit: Clane Gessel)

Sunday’s super-sized total lunar eclipse is special for a couple of reasons, but it’s extra-special for places like Seattle, where the timing is perfect for family viewing.

“I love it when these astronomical events are at a good time,” said Alice Enevoldsen, an astronomy educator whose home base is in West Seattle. “It’s in the evening … but not yet bedtime for little kids.”

Lunar eclipses are among the most accessible astronomical events out there: When Earth casts its shadow on the full moon’s disk, half the world can watch it — and the show usually lasts for an hour or more, in contrast to the mere minutes of duration for a total solar eclipse. (Check out this interactive feature to learn more about lunar eclipses.)

This eclipse is making headlines in part because it takes place when the full moon’s apparent size is at its maximum for the year — a so-called supermoon. Supermoons are about 7 percent bigger and 16 percent brighter than the average full moon. NASA says the most recent supermoon lunar eclipse was in 1982, and the next time will be in 2033. (However, depending on your definition of a “supermoon,” such an eclipse came in 1997 and is due in 2021 as well.)

For Seattleites, Sunday’s show begins with moonrise at 6:54 p.m. PT, when the eclipse’s partial phase is already well under way. If you’re lucky, you can catch the show’s climax at 7:11 p.m., when the last sliver of the moon’s bright disk gives way to a dull red glow.

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