Early on September 1, the moon will pass directly between the Earth and the sun, casting its shadow across Earth’s surface. Those in the path of the shadow, mainly in southern Africa, will be able to look up and see a spectacular event — an annular “ring of fire” solar eclipse.
It’s a rare sight: There will only be three more annular eclipses this decade.
Starting around 7:30 am local time (Universal time 2:30 am), the eclipse will pass over the countries of Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Mozambique, and then hop over to the island nation of Madagascar. The longest eclipse will occur in Tanzania, peaking around 12:06 pm local time (9:06 am Universal time).
While the full eclipse will only be seen in a small 60-mile-wide path, much of the African continent will be able to see at least a partial eclipse.
Those of us on the East Coast of the United States won’t be able to see it. But if you’re awake at 2:30 am and need something sublime and beautiful to lull you back to sleep, I suggest you check out this live stream via Slooh, an astronomy outreach website. Its broadcast begins at 2:45 am Eastern.
An annular eclipse is like a total eclipse in that the moon passes between the Earth and the sun. But during an annular eclipse, the moon appears to be smaller than the sun, so light from the edges of the star still shines through. That’s why these events are called “ring of fire” eclipses. They look like this. Cool, right?
If you happen to be in Africa for the show, remember: It's a really, really bad idea to stare straight at the sun, even when the moon is covering most of it. The intensity of light radiating from a partial or whole eclipse can still cause retinal damage. "Even when 99% of the Sun's surface (the photosphere) is obscured during the partial phases of a solar eclipse, the remaining crescent Sun is still intense enough to cause a retinal burn, even though illumination levels are comparable to twilight," NASA explains.
The safest way to observe an eclipse is indirectly — either by projecting it onto a screen through a pinhole or by looking through a specially designed filter.
When's the next time a solar eclipse will hit North America?
If you're in North America and you're jealous, know that in about a year we'll be able to see a total solar eclipse. On August 21, 2017, a full solar shadow will pass over the US from the Northwest to the Southeast. (Canada and Mexico will see a partial eclipse.)
If you miss that one, be assured there will (likely) be a few more chances to see a total solar eclipse in the next few decades.
The map below traces the path of all the total solar eclipses to occur on this continent until 2050. NASA also has an almanac of all the solar and lunar eclipses that will occur until the year 3000, if you (or your descendants) want to plan to catch every last one.