The Sun is our ultimate light source on Earth. The side of the Earth facing the Sun is bathed in sunlight, due to our rotation this side changes continuously. The side which faces the Sun has the day, and the other side is the night, in the shadow of the entire Earth. The sun being an extended source (and not a point source), the Earth’s shadow had both **umbra** and **penumbra**. Umbra is the region where no light falls, while penumbra is a region where some light falls. In case of an extended source like the Sun, this would mean that light from some part of the Sun does fall in the penumbra. Occasionally, when the Moon falls in this shadow we get the lunar eclipse. Sometimes it is total lunar eclipse, while many other times it is partial lunar eclipse. Total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon falls in the umbra, while partial one occurs when it is in penumbra. On the other hand, when the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun, we get a solar eclipse. The places where the umbra of the Moon’s shadow falls, we get total solar eclipse, which is a narrow path on the surface of the Earth, and places where the penumbra falls a partial solar eclipse is visible. But how big is this shadow? How long is it? How big is the umbra and how big is the penumbra? We will do some rough calculations, to estimate these answers and some more to understand the phenomena of eclipses.

We will start with a reasonable assumption that both the Sun and the Earth as spheres. The radii of the Sun, the Earth and the Moon, and the respective distances between them are known. The Sun-Earth-Moon system being a dynamic one, the distances change depending on the configurations, but we can assume average distances for our purpose.

[**The image above is interactive, move the points to see the changes. This construction is not to scale!**. The simulation was created with Cinderella ]

The diameter of the Earth is approximately 12,742 kilometers, and the diameter of the Sun is about 1,391,000 kilometers, hence the ratio is about 109, while the distance between the Sun and the Earth is about 149 million kilometers. A couple of illustrations depicting it on the correct scale.

The Sun’s (with center A) diameter is represented by DF, while EG represents Earth’s (with center C) diameter. We connect the centers of Earth and Sun. The umbra will be limited in extent in the cone with base EG and height HC, while the penumbra is infinite in extent expanding from EG to infinity. The region from umbra to penumbra changes in intensity gradually. If we take a projection of the system on a plane bisecting the spheres, we get two similar triangles HDF and HEG. We have made an assumption that our properties of similar triangles from Euclidean geometry are valid here.

In the schematic diagram above (not to scale) the umbra of the Earth terminates at point H. Point H is the point which when extended gives tangents to both the circles. (How do we find a point which gives tangents to both the circles? Is this point unique?). Now by simple ratio of similar triangles, we get

$$

\frac{DF}{EG} = \frac{HA}{HC} = \frac{HC+AC}{HC}

$$

Therefore,

$$

HC = \frac{AC}{DF/EG -1}

$$

Now, $DF/EG = 109$, and $AC$ = 149 million km, substituting the values we get the length of the umbra $HC \approx$ 1.37 million km. The Moon, which is at an average distance of 384,400 kilometers, sometimes falls in this umbra, we get a total lunar eclipse. The composite image of different phases of a total lunar eclipse below depicts this beautifully. One can “see” the round shape of Earth’s umbra in the central three images of the Moon (red coloured) when it is completely in the umbra of the Earth (Why is it red?).

When only a part of umbra falls on the moon we get a partial lunar eclipse as shown below. Only a part of Earth’s umbra is on the Moon.

So if the moon was a bit further away, lets say at 500,000 km, we would not get a total solar eclipse. Due to a tilt in Moon’s orbit not every new moon is an eclipse meaning that the Moon is outside both the umbra and the penumbra.

The observations of the lunar eclipse can also help us estimate the diameter of the Moon.

Similar principle applies (though the numbers change) for solar eclipses, when the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun. In case of the Moon, ratio of diameter of the Sun and the Moon is about 400. With the distance between them approximately equal to the distance between Earth and the Sun. Hence the length of the umbra using the above formula is 0.37 million km or about 370,000 km. This makes the total eclipse visible on a small region of Earth and is not extended, even the penumbra is not large (How wide is the umbra and the penumbra of the moon on the surface of the Earth?).

When only penumbra is falling on a given region, we get the partial solar eclipse.

You can explore when solar eclipse will occur in your area (or has occurred) using the Solar Eclipse Explorer.

This is how the umbra of the Moon looks like from space.

And same thing would happen to a globe held in sunlight, its shadow would be given by the same ratio.

Thus we see that the numbers are almost matched to give us total solar eclipse, sometimes when the moon is a bit further away we may also get what is called the annular solar eclipse, in which the Sun is not covered completely by the Moon. Though the total lunar eclipses are relatively common (average twice a year) as compared to total solar eclipses (once 18 months to 2 years). Another coincidence is that the angular diameters of the Moon and the Sun are almost matched in the sky, both are about half a degree (distance/diameter ratio is about 1/110). Combined with the ratio of distances we are fortunate to get total solar eclipses.

Seeing and experiencing a total solar eclipse is an overwhelming experience even when we have an understanding about why and how it happens. More so in the past, when the Sun considered a god, went out in broad daylight. This was considered (and is still considered by many) as a bad omen. But how did the ancient people understand eclipses? There is a certain periodicity in the eclipses, which can be found out by collecting large number of observations and finding patterns in them. This was done by ancient Babylonians, who had continuous data about eclipses from several centuries. Of course sometimes the eclipse will happen in some other part of the Earth and not be visible in the given region, still it could be predicted. To be able to predict eclipses was a great power, and people who could do that became the priestly class. But the Babylonians did not have a model to explain such observations. Next stage that came up was in ancient Greece where models were developed to explain (and predict) the observations. This continues to our present age.

The discussion we have had applies in the case when the light source (in this case the Sun) is larger than the opaque object (in this case the Earth). If the the light source is smaller than the object what will happen to the umbra? It turns out that the umbra is infinite in extent. You see this effect when you get your hand close to a flame of candle and the shadow of your hand becomes ridiculously large! See what happens in the interactive simulation above.

## References

James Southhall *Mirrors, Prisms and Lenses *(1918) Macmillan Company

Eric Rogers *Physics for the Inquiring Mind (1969) *Princeton