From the June 2019 issue

Partial eclipse oddities

Take a closer look at the dark edge.
By | Published: June 19, 2019 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Mountains and valleys near the south pole of the Moon are visible in this image of a partial solar eclipse taken from space by the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft October 7, 2010.
On July 2, 2019, a total solar eclipse will be visible over parts of Chile and Argentina just before sunset. Its partial phases will be visible throughout much of South and Central America. While totality is usually the draw, I’d be interested in reports of telescopic observations of the dark lunar limb during the partial phases (using an approved solar filter, of course), especially under less-than-perfect atmospheric seeing. Although it may sound counterintuitive, an unstable atmosphere can reward observers with some fascinating optical phenomena.

A ripple effect

Occasionally, during the partial phases of the August 2017 total solar eclipse, the Moon’s following limb (edge) not only rippled like waves but also sported mysterious wing tips at its north and south extremities. This effect was in turn mirrored by a bright collar of light that ran along the outer edge of the lunar limb. The latter phenomenon is a well-known brightness-contrast illusion. If you stare at a black object (the New Moon) long enough against a bright background (the Sun’s disk), a portion of the eye’s retina will become fatigued, creating a negative (bright) afterimage that involuntary eye movements carry beyond the borders of the black crescent. Early telescopic observers mistakenly believed this bright collar was due to the refraction of sunlight through a lunar atmosphere.

The Moon’s rippling outer edge was an auxiliary phenomenon. Under excellent seeing conditions, the Moon’s limb appears irregular under magnification because of all the peaks and valleys along the limb that we see in profile. But heat shimmer magnified and warped these features and set them in motion — an effect similar to that seen along an ocean horizon or a hot road under mirage conditions. What I didn’t expect to see was the contrast illusion rippling in sync with the mock irregularities along the dark lunar crescent.

I would be most interested to hear if any of the black “wave crests” along the undulating limb appear to “rip free” and vanish, like what happens with terrestrial mirages. Watching the partial phases as the eclipse nears the horizon may just do the trick.

The wing tips at the cusps were an unexpected phenomenon. I’m guessing they, too, were a mirage effect, coupled with the black drop effect. Usually associated with transits of Venus, the black drop occurs at second and third contacts, when the black disk of Venus may appear to elongate toward the inner edge of the Sun’s disk. Perhaps solar limb darkening added the perceived extension of the lunar limb. I’m not sure, but it’s a working theory that you may help to solve during the next solar eclipse.


Leonor Ana Hernandez, an amateur astronomer and artist from La Mancha, Spain, displays her pastel drawings of the January 2019 total lunar eclipse.

Leonor Ana Hernandez

Lunar eclipses, too

Wavelike irregularities can also be seen along the edge of Earth’s shadow during the partial phases of a lunar eclipse, as Leonor Ana Hernandez of La Mancha, Spain, observed the night of January 21, 2019. Hernandez went to the La Hita Observatory in Toledo, Spain, to view the event, during which she focused on the advance of the curved shadow and associated visual phenomena.

Hernandez likened the advancing shadow to a “sea breaking gently on the shore of the beach.” She watched as the shadow deformed as a “channel of darkness, opened like a dike, and overflowed toward Mare Frigoris. That plume of darkness held for a while until the false terminator advanced to reach Aristarchus.” Hernandez says she was “burning with emotions” as she sketched the eclipse and made some drawings in pastel color on black paper to capture “what my eyes and my heart saw [and felt] in this eclipse of ‘ice and fire.’ ”

As always, send your observations and thoughts to