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On November 14th, 2012 a narrow corridor of the Southern Hemisphere will be treated to a special celestial event - The only total solar eclipse of 2012. The complete concealment of the sun will only be seen from Kakadu National Park and Cairns in Australia, parts of the South Pacific and a small area off the coast of Chile.
For those not fortunate enough to live or visit these areas, there will a partial eclipse that will visible from a large portion of Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Antarctica and the far southern slice of South America.
While not rare, total solar eclipses are coveted events because they cover very narrow corridors of the Earth and don't occur at the same areas very often. For example, the last total solar eclipse in North America occurred on August 1st, 2008 and the next one is not expected until August 21st, 2017! While the Southern Hemisphere did experience one on July 11th 2011, it could only be seen from only certain parts of South America. The residents of Australia have not experienced one since December 4th, 2002.
And when they do occur, they last for very short periods of time. The longest known duration of a total solar eclipse is a paltry seven and a half minutes. So, while for the residents of Cairns the eclipse will take place from 5.45 am to 7.40 am local time, the total obscurement of the sun will last for just two minutes. Also, there is a slight possibility that thanks to an incoming tropical storm some areas may not be able to enjoy the beauty of this rare event.
But for those that will, this will a sight to behold with the sky taking on a strange glow as the bright sun is completely blocked by the dark moon. The moon's outline is beautifully lit up by the Sun's rays trying to escape from behind. This extended outer atmosphere of the Sun is known as its corona. It is no wonder that thousands of people flock to the areas to see this amazing phenomenon.
Not only that, these rare and fleeting opportunities also allow scientists to conduct experiments on mysteries such as what makes the star so hot or causes the unpredictable solar flames that emanate from its surface.
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, so that the Sun is partially or totally covered. Solar eclipses can only occur during new moon, when the moon is between the Earth and the Sun. Whether it will be a total or partial eclipse depends on where the moon is in its orbit. Since the moon's orbit around the earth is not perfectly round but oval, its distance from the Earth varies from about 221,500 to 252,000 miles. Whenever its orbit brings it closer to the Earth, it appears larger than the Sun, and when the three align, a total eclipse occurs.
While total solar eclipses are deemed safe to watch with the naked eye, partial are not. That's because the reflection emits intense infrared and ultraviolet radiation rays, that can cause permanent eye damage even if exposed to, only for a few minutes. Hence protective glasses are always recommended during these events.
Sources: Mr. Eclipse.com, Wikipedia.org, Space.com