If you’re looking for an astronomical event so remote that no one would ever bother to see it, tomorrow’s solar eclipse fits the bill. The moon will cover all but a thin ring of sunlight for any beast or bacterium that happens to look up from a tiny spot on the Antarctic ice at latitude at 131 degrees east and 79 degrees south. Not only is the event remote, it’s also brief, lasting all of 49 seconds.
The eclipse is annular, meaning that the moon is too far from Earth for it to completely cover the sun, leaving a “ring of fire” or annulus of sunlight during what would otherwise be totality.
Annular eclipses aren’t rare, but this variety of annular eclipse turns out to be one of the rarest because the central axis of the moon’s shadow misses Earth’s surface by only a few miles. What does this mean?
It’s a bit obscure but boils down to this. No one anywhere along the eclipse path will see the moon exactly centered on the sun’s disk during maximum eclipse. OK, not a big deal, but oh so rare.
Now if you wanted to see the moon completely cover the sun, at least momentarily, you’d have to launch yourself into medium Earth orbit at an altitude of around 3,100 miles (5,000 km). Only then would you be close enough to the moon for it to fit over the sun, affording a brief glimpse of totality.
Astronomers call this particular flavor of eclipse “non-central with one limit”. The center of the moon’s shadow – called the antumbra in an annular eclipse – touches down in Antarctica at 12:57 a.m. CDT followed by the maximum ring eclipse just 6 minutes later. Six minutes after that, the shadow lifts off Earth and the annular eclipse is over.
Eclipse event experts Jean Meeus and Fred Espenak point out that of 3,956 annular eclipses occurring from 2000 BC to 3000 AD, only 68 (1.7%) are of the non-central variety.
Eclipse chasers would probably find a way to get there if the moon’s shadow touched the ground even for a few seconds, but ring eclipses don’t cut it when it means spending tens of thousands of dollars to freeze your butt off on the most remote spot on the planet.
Skywatchers in Australia will still have a fine show of it, where about half the sun will be covered in partial eclipse. Even you and I will be able to watch the partial phases live on our home computers courtesy of SLOOH which will webcast the stellar show from Australia.
There’s a catch though. Broadcasting starts at 1:30 a.m. Central Time Tuesday morning, a time so remote that few will venture there.