'Ring of Fire' Solar Eclipse: The Science of Today's Strange Celestial Event

Solar Eclipse Over Grand Canyon
Annularity, the Moon is too small to cover the entire Sun’s disk so a ring or “annulus” of bright sunlight surrounds the Moon. This image was taken on May 20, 2012 from the Grand Canyon (Image credit: Cruikshank/NLSI)

Update: See the first photos of the solar eclipse here. An initial video of the 'ring of fire' eclipse is here.

A potentially dazzling ring-shaped solar eclipse today (May 9) will be a celestial show sure to amaze for those able to view it. Weather permitting, the passage of the moon in front of the sun will make the star look like a cosmic "ring of fire" for observers in western Australia, where the best viewing areas are.

As astounding as the show might be, however, some keen observers will have more than just beauty in mind when they're looking skyward. Scientists on the ground can make important observations during today's ring-shaped annular solar eclipse, which could lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the sun. 

The first solar eclipse of 2013 occurs at the Moon's descending node in eastern Ares. An annular eclipse will be visible from Australia, eastern Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Gilbert Islands. (Image credit: Eclipse predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC)

One of the scientists ready for today's eclipse is Jay Pasachoff, a veteran eclipse chaser and astronomer at Williams College in Massachusetts. Pasachoff has traveled to Australia to collect data and witness his 56th solar eclipse. While the solar eclipse is occuring today (May 9), the local time in western Australia where views are at their best will be Friday, May 10, local time. [See Amazing Photos of a 'Ring of Fire' Solar Eclipse ]

Skywatchers in certain parts of Australia and the islands of the Southern Pacific Ocean will be able to view the eclipse in person. If you don't happen to live in one of those areas, you can watch the solar eclipse live on SPACE.com, courtesy of the online Slooh Space Camera, beginning at 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT).

"At an annular eclipse we're really studying the active regions of the sun, which are the sunspots," Pasachoff  who also chairs the International Astronomical Union's working group on eclipses told SPACE.com.

Satellites in orbit could observe solar activity during the eclipse as well, Pasachoff said. When combined and compared with data collected on the ground, the information gathered by the spacecraft will give researchers a larger picture of what the sun is doing during its expected peak in activity — or "solar maximum" — this year.

"So we're just doing the best we can to show what's going on on the ground and to give the highest resolution observations of what's going on, on the ground and the sunspots at the same time," Pasachoff added.

During the solar eclipse, the moon will cover about 95 percent of the sun when it passes in front of the star's face, leaving Earth in the moon's shadow. The sky will not be noticeably darker, however. Special eyewear, camera and telescope filters and other means of protection are still necessary to observe this kind of eclipse safely in person.

Parts of the Hawaiian Islands, the southern Philippines, eastern Indonesia, other parts of Australia, small areas of Papua New Guinea and a tiny part of New Zealand (weather permitting) could see a partial view of the eclipse.

Today's eclipse follows a partial lunar eclipse that shadowed the moon above Central Asia, Western Australia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Another minor lunar eclipse will occur on May 24.

This isn't the only solar eclipse of the year. On Nov. 3, a rare annular eclipse that transitions into a total eclipse — called a hybrid eclipse — will be visible in the northern Atlantic Ocean and into equatorial Africa.

WARNING: Never look directly at the sun during an eclipse with a telescope or your unaided eye. Severe eye damage can result and scientists use special filters to safely view the sun.

Editor's note: If you live in the observing area of today's solar eclipse and safely snap an amazing picture of the sun that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to Managing Editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

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Miriam Kramer
Staff Writer

Miriam Kramer joined Space.com as a Staff Writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also served as Space.com's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. Miriam is currently a space reporter with Axios, writing the Axios Space newsletter. You can follow Miriam on Twitter.