What's the difference between a solar and lunar eclipse? - CBS46 News

What's the difference between a solar and lunar eclipse?

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(Diagram: NASA) (Diagram: NASA)
In a solar eclipse, what you're observing is the sun, which is directly behind the moon. (Photo: NASA) In a solar eclipse, what you're observing is the sun, which is directly behind the moon. (Photo: NASA)
Anyone within the "path of totality" can see a total solar eclipse, which is the image in the center. (Photo: NASA) Anyone within the "path of totality" can see a total solar eclipse, which is the image in the center. (Photo: NASA)
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth, moon and sun are in perfect alignment, blanketing the moon in the Earth's shadow. (Photo: NASA) A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth, moon and sun are in perfect alignment, blanketing the moon in the Earth's shadow. (Photo: NASA)
Georgians hoping to view the eclipse would have to drive to the north eastern corner of the state to view it. (Photo: NASA) Georgians hoping to view the eclipse would have to drive to the north eastern corner of the state to view it. (Photo: NASA)
ATLANTA (CBS46) -

There's a lot of buzz surrounding Solar Eclipse 2017, and our CBS46 news team wanted to answer a question that's not always asked: What exactly is a solar eclipse?

What's an eclipse?

The Earth completes one counterclockwise rotation every 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds, which is about 24 hours.

The Earth's rotation, which is like a spinning top, means that each side of our spherical planet will be facing toward or directly away from the sun at all times.

This distinguishes our "day" and "night," which is a very common occurrence.

An "eclipse," however, is when a celestial body obscures or blocks the passage of light between an observer and the original source of light.

In other words, an eclipse is special because it involves multiple revolving objects aligning together, which doesn't happen very often.

(If a friend points a flashlight toward you, rotation would be turning your head away from it, whereas an eclipse would be shielding your eyes with your hands.)

What's a solar eclipse?

This celestial event is when the moon sits between the Earth and sun.

The moon passes between the sun and Earth and blocks all or part of the sun—for up to about three hours, from beginning to end—as viewed from a given location.

What you're observing in a solar eclipse is the sun, which is directly behind the moon.

For the solar eclipse this year, the longest period when the moon completely blocks the sun from any given location along the path will be about two minutes and 40 seconds. (The last time the contiguous U.S. saw a total eclipse was in 1979.)

Anyone within the "path of totality" can see a total solar eclipse.

This path, where the moon will completely cover the sun and the sun's tenuous atmosphere—the corona—can be seen, will stretch from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.

Observers outside this path will still see a partial solar eclipse where the moon covers part of the sun's disk.

What's a lunar eclipse?

This celestial event is when the Earth sits between the sun and moon.

It's a phenomenon that occurs when the Earth, moon and sun are in perfect alignment, blanketing the moon in the Earth's shadow.

What you're observing in a lunar eclipse is the moon, with the sun directly behind the Earth.

"Lunar" comes from the Latin word luna, which means "moon." And "solar" comes from the Latin word solaris, which means "sun."

"Solar eclipse" is a phrase that essentially means "the sun is being blocked (or eclipsed) from the observer's perspective."

Another way of remembering the difference is knowing which gets darker. In a solar eclipse, the sun gets darker, whereas a lunar eclipse means the moon is darker.

Why is the difference important?

Well, apart from learning science for its own sake, the difference is very important if you plan to enjoy watching it happen.

You can watch a lunar eclipse without any protective eye wear, just like you can watch the moon without damaging your retinas.

You cannot, however, stare at the sun for extended periods of time without potentially damaging your long term vision.

What's dangerous about a Solar eclipse is that it can be deceiving.

Although the moon is blocking visible light, there are several other harmful rays—many of which are invisible to the human eye (such as X-rays, ultraviolet, infared and radio waves)—that are still reaching the Earth, directly scarring and permanently damaging your eyes without you realizing it.

The discomfort of direct, visible light from the sun is why we naturally wouldn't stare at it for too long. You wouldn't, however, physically feel your eyes burning and know to turn away due to the absence of bright light during a solar eclipse.

Be sure to grab a pair of authorized eclipse viewing glasses if you plan on viewing it directly.

Here is a large map of where the eclipse can be viewed within the continental U.S. (Click to expand)

Story written by CBS46 Digital Content Producer Chris Price.

Make sure to tune in for our LIVE, continuous coverage on-air and streaming online beginning at 1 p.m. on Aug. 21, and stay with us as we continue coverage through 6:30 p.m.

Go to Total Eclipse 2017 for in-depth coverage and online resources.

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