August’s total solar eclipse won’t be the last time the moon cloaks the sun’s light. From now to 2040, for example, skywatchers around the globe can witness 15 such events.
Their predicted paths aren’t random scribbles. Solar eclipses occur in what’s called a Saros cycle — a period that lasts about 18 years, 11 days and eight hours, and is governed by the moon’s orbit. (Lunar eclipses follow a Saros cycle, too, which the Chaldeans first noticed probably around 500 B.C.)
Two total solar eclipses separated by that 18-years-and-change period are almost twins — compare this year’s eclipse with the Sept. 2, 2035 eclipse, for example. They take place at roughly the same time of year, at roughly the same latitude and with the moon at about the same distance from Earth. But those extra eight hours, during which the Earth has rotated an additional third of the way on its axis, shift the eclipse path to a different part of the planet.
This cycle repeats over time, creating a family of eclipses called a Saros series. A series lasts 12 to 15 centuries and includes about 70 or more eclipses. The solar eclipses of 2019 and 2037 belong to a different Saros series, so their paths too are shifted mimics. Their tracks differ in shape from 2017’s, because the moon is at a different place in its orbit when it passes between the Earth and the sun. Paths are wider at the poles because the moon’s shadow is hitting the Earth’s surface at a steep angle.
Predicting and mapping past and future eclipses allows scientists “to examine the patterns of eclipse cycles, the most prominent of which is the Saros,” says astrophysicist Fred Espenak, who is retired from NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
He would know. Espenak and his colleague Jean Meeus, a retired Belgian astronomer, have mapped solar eclipse paths from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 3000. For archaeologists and historians peering backward, the maps help match up accounts of long-ago eclipses with actual paths. For eclipse chasers peering forward, the data are an itinerary.
“I got interested in figuring out how to calculate eclipse paths for my own use, for planning … expeditions,” says Espenak, who was 18 when he witnessed his first total solar eclipse. It was in 1970, and he secured permission to drive the family car from southern New York to North Carolina to see it. Since then, Espenak, nicknamed “Mr. Eclipse,” has been to every continent, including Antarctica, for a total eclipse of the sun.
“It’s such a dramatic, spectacular, beautiful event,” he says. “You only get a few brief minutes, typically, of totality before it ends. After it’s over, you’re craving to see it again.”