Total solar eclipses are more than just visually fascinating. Throughout the centuries they have played an important role in understanding the star we live with. During the Middle Ages, a total solar eclipse gave early astronomers their first recorded glimpse of the corona. In an 1860 eclipse, astronomers witnessed what is believed to be the first recorded coronal mass ejection — the giant clouds of solar material that can erupt off the Sun and travel through space. NASA still studies coronal mass ejections today to understand how they can affect near-Earth space, where disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field can sometimes impact radio communications, onboard satellite electronics, and GPS.
Total Solar Eclipse 2016
Today, researchers study the Sun’s atmosphere continuously by replicating the effects of an eclipse using an instrument called a coronagraph, which uses a solid disc to block the Sun’s bright surface. Coronagraphs are less effective than natural eclipses, however. Because of how light bends around sharp edges, a phenomenon called diffraction, coronagraph discs must be much larger than would otherwise be necessary to block the Sun’s face. Coronagraphs, therefore, inherently block much of the Sun’s inner atmosphere from scientists’ view — making eclipses a rare chance to observe the lower corona.
Next year is set to be impressive for stargazers, with eclipses, supermoons and visible planets to spot, among other spectacular celestial events. As we enter 2016, here is our round-up of the must-see phenomena taking place. Up to 40 meteors per hour will be visible at the peak of the shower between 3 and 4 January, thought to be from the space debris left behind by an extinct comet known as 2003 EH1. The giant gas planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and illuminated by the Sun, meaning it will be at its brightest and visible throughout the night. You might even be able to spot Jupiter's four largest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, if you have a telescope or even a good pair of binoculars.