Special Episode: Annular Solar Eclipse 21 June 2020

with Niruj Ramanujam, Prospery Simpemba and Alemiye Mamo

Jump to transcript


COVID 19: Please observe all local social distancing and gathering guidelines in your area of residence during the eclipse.

In this special bonus episode we discuss the upcoming Annular Solar Eclipse occurring on 21 June 2020 across much of Africa and Asia!

Locations directly under the shadow of the moon will see an annular eclipse for a few minutes during maximum when a thin ring of the un-eclipsed sun can be seen. Other regions will see a partial eclipse.

The Path of the 21 June 2020 Annular Solar Eclipse. Source: Timeanddate.com

We’re joined by three colleagues from around Africa: Niruj Ramanujam who is the Chairperson, Outreach Committee for the African Astronomical Society (AfAS), Prospery Simpemba from the Southern African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development, and Alemiye Mamo from the East African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development.

Our guests explain what to expect from the eclipse and how to safely view it.

Please note, that in order to see the eclipse you must take serious precautions. You can watch the annular solar eclipse, but YOU MUST BE CAREFUL!

How to observe:

Firstly, you will need a telescope (a small one with metal (not plastic) parts will do). You will not be able to use binoculars as they are not powerful enough.

Secondly, you will need a sheet of clean paper on which to project the image of the Sun through the telescope.

How to Observe the Transit of Mercury with a small telescope


Doing so will cause permanent damage and possible blindness. Only look at the eclipse indirectly by looking at the projection on paper. This is the safest way to observe the event.

You can find more details through the dedicated AfAS eclipse page below:


Featured Image:

The annular solar eclipse of 26 December 2019, as seen from Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

Transcript (By Alicen Munn)

Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr Daniel Cunnama

Jacinta: [00:00:08] and Dr Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Dan: [00:00:16] Yes, we’ll introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our bonus episode. How are you all doing? How’s it going, Dan?

Dan: [00:00:39] I was going to say if you’re asking me then I’m good. Recording over the phone again.

Jacinta: [00:00:46] Yeah. Where are you now?

Dan: [00:00:49] I’m in my car actually because it’s a nice quiet place with actually pretty decent acoustics.

Jacinta: [00:00:54] Yeah, it’s sounding pretty good there. My housemate kindly rebuilt our blanket fort which we’d taken down a few days ago so I’m sitting in that again. Today we thought we would put out a bonus episode to let you know about an annular solar eclipse that’s happening, particularly over the North of Africa.

Dan: [00:01:14] Yeah, so there’s an annular solar eclipse happening on the 21st of June and it’ll be visible across most of Africa, although South Africa misses out this time. I know, it’s unfortunate. It’ll probably be cloudy here anyway. 

Jacinta: [00:01:30] Yeah, that’s true.

Dan: [00:01:31] And then it sort of moves over India and Asia after that.

Jacinta: [00:01:36] So do you want to just quickly tell us some safety warnings before we go on?

Dan: [00:01:39] Yeah. Whenever we mention eclipse and solar eclipse I think we have to lead with a warning. The standard warning is please don’t look directly at the Sun. Not ever and not even during an eclipse. If you are going to look at the Sun do it with proper eclipse viewers or with an indirect method such as through a pinhole or some other indirect method.

And definitely don’t look at the Sun through binoculars or a telescope.

Jacinta: [00:02:04] Yeah, exactly. Please don’t ever point your telescope at the Sun or your binoculars at the Sun even during the middle of the eclipse.

Dan: [00:02:11] The other thing I should say quickly now is that with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are not holding many big events because we don’t want people to congregate.

So as much as possible, try not to congregate to view the eclipse if you are able to rather do it from your own house using a couple of the methods we’ll discuss later. So just one more warning there. 

Jacinta: [00:02:33] Okay so Dan let’s just start with what is an annular eclipse?

Dan: [00:02:39] So I was joined by a couple of people who I interviewed who are running a lot of the events around this eclipse and they will be able to explain more to us, but basically what an annular eclipse is, is it’s not quite a total eclipse because the Moon is further away in its orbit around the Earth than when we’re having a regular total eclipse. So what happens is the Moon doesn’t cover the entire ring of the Sun. So at peak annular eclipse, what you see is the Moon covering the face of the Sun with a ring of Sun around it. They call it the ring of fire and that is what’s called an annular eclipse and how it differs from a total solar eclipse, which blocks out the Sun completely.

Jacinta: [00:03:22] Yeah, exactly. Okay. So the eclipse is going to happen on the 21st of June in the early morning. It starts in central Africa, crosses over Eastern Africa to the Arabian peninsula and then to Asia. The path of annularity is 60 kilometers wide. So it will start in the Democratic Republic of Congo go across the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, then Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, India, China, Taiwan, and then it will end in the Pacific Ocean

I’ve never seen one of these. Have you ever seen one, Dan?

Dan: [00:03:53] No, unfortunately not. I have seen a total eclipse which was pretty exciting.

Jacinta: [00:03:57] Really?

Dan: [00:03:58] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:03:58] Oh, wow.

Dan: [00:03:59] Back in 2002 there was a total eclipse here in South Africa. I went up to the Kruger Park actually. We were inside the Kruger Park and watched it from there.

Jacinta: [00:04:08] Oh, wow that must have been amazing.

Dan: [00:04:10] Yeah, it was very, very cool. We had a little bit of trouble with cloud, but for the actual total eclipse, it did clear briefly, which was pretty nice.

Jacinta: [00:04:19] Oh, that’s so cool. I’ve always wanted to see one.

Anyway, back onto the annular eclipse. It does actually… we’ll put a picture on our website, but it kind of looks like that picture of the black hole that was made last year.

Dan: [00:04:30] Yeah, it’s got a, you know… the Moon is a dark shadow in front of the Sun and then there’s this ring of light around it, which is obviously the edge of the Sun and it does look a little bit of a like the back hole image, but we’re not going to go into that cause that’s just going to be confusing.

Jacinta: [00:04:44] No. It’s an interesting parallel.

Dan: [00:04:46] The Moon is not a black hole.

Jacinta: [00:04:47] No, it’s not a black hole. Let’s just be very clear about that. It’s a completely different thing, it just happens to look similar.

So Dan, you spoke to a few experts from different African countries recently about this.

Dan: [00:04:58] Yeah, I spoke to Niruj Ramanujam who is the outreach director or outreach coordinator for the African Astronomical Society and he’s coordinating a lot of the communications around this. I also spoke to Alemiye Mamo, who is the regional director for the East African Office of Astronomy for Development, as well as Prospery Simpemba who is the Southern African regional coordinator. So the three of them are obviously very involved in promoting this event, trying to get people to see it, obviously in a safe way.

And they explained what was going on, what the annual eclipse was, and how you could view it safely.

Jacinta: [00:05:40] Great, let’s hear from them.

Dan: [00:05:47] So today on The Cosmic Savannah I’m joined by three individuals. Niruj Ramanujam who is joining us in his capacity as the head of the outreach committee for the African Astronomical Society. Then we are joined by Prospery Simpemba who is the regional coordinator for the Southern African Office of Astronomy for Development.

And lastly by Alemiye Mamo who is the regional coordinator for the East African Office of Astronomy for Development. Welcome.

Niruj: [00:06:19] Thank you.

Alemiye: [00:06:20] Thank you.

Prosperity: [00:06:20] Thank you.

Dan: [00:06:21] So if we could just get started with each of you introducing yourselves and telling us a little bit about who you are and where you are joining us from today.

Niruj: [00:06:32] Hello. My name was Niruj Ramanujam. I’m a radio astronomer working at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, SARAO in Cape Town in South Africa and I’m the chairperson of the outreach committee or the AfAS or the African Astronomical Society.

Prospery: [00:06:49] My name is Prospery Simpemba from Zambia. I’m based at the Copperbelt University as a physics lecturer. I’m also the regional coordinator for the Southern African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development which is hosted by the Copperbelt University.

Alemiye: [00:07:07] My name is Alemiye Mamo from Ethiopia. I’m working at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute as a researcher and also a PhD student in astronomy and astrophysics department in the Institute. Besides I also coordinate the East African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development which is hosted by the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute in Ethiopia.

Dan: [00:07:30] Great, thank you guys and welcome to The Cosmic Savannah. So today we are speaking to you because there’s an exciting event coming soon on the 21st of June. A large portion of Africa and some of Asia will be experiencing an annular solar eclipse. To tell us a little bit more about that Niruj do you mind just explaining to the listeners what exactly an annular eclipse is and how it differs from a solar eclipse? And then also maybe just say how we should be observing this in a safe way?

Niruj: [00:08:06] Thanks, Daniel. A lot of us will be familiar with what an eclipse is. The Earth goes around the Sun once a year, the Moon goes around the Earth once a month. When any of these three bodies come together in a straight line we get an eclipse, right? So because the Moon and the Earth shine by light from the Sun, the sunlight casts a shadow behind the Moon and behind the Earth. And as the Moon goes around the Earth and we go around the Sun together, when the shadow of the Moon falls on the Earth, which happens when the Moon comes between the Earth and the Sun, then the Moon can hide the Sun for regions on the Earth which are under the shadow. Right? So then we get a solar eclipse. But if you’re under the shadow of the Moon as if passes over the Earth, then you would see the Moon slowly cover the Sun up to a maximum extent and then slowly move away from the Sun. Now this takes typically a few hours and typically what you will see is a partial solar eclipse for most places, which would be under the shadow.

If you are at the center of the shadow called the Umbra, which is typically 60 to 150 to 200km wide, then you will be exactly behind the Moon and then during the maximum eclipse, the Moon will be able to cover the Sun’s disc exactly. And therefore you will not see any part of the visible surface of the Sun at this point. This occurs for a few minutes and it’s called Totality. A total solar eclipse is very special and it’s wonderful to see, it’s beautiful. And it’s at this time that we can see the corona of the atmosphere of the Sun, which glows for a large extent outside. Now total solar eclipses are very famous, they are well known, people would have seen pictures of a total solar eclipse and the Sun’s atmosphere around it, but there’s also a special kind of an eclipse called the annular solar eclipse. To understand that let’s look at two particular aspects of a solar system.

One is why do we get a total eclipse at all?  We know that the Moon exactly covers the Sun, but why is it able to exactly cover the sun? This is because of a very interesting coincidence in the solar system. The Sun is roughly around 400 times bigger than the Moon is, but it’s also 400 times farther from us than the Moon is. This coincidence implies that the disc of the Sun and the disc of the Moon are roughly the same size in the sky, which means that the Moon can exactly cover the Sun’s disc and you get a total solar eclipse.

Now the Moon goes around the Earth once every month but it does not go around the Earth in a perfect circle like you might think, but it goes around us in an oval. We call it an ellipse, right? It’s like an oval around it. Which means that in some parts of the orbit the Moon will be slightly farther away from us than usual and in some parts of the orbit it will be slightly closer to us than usual. This difference is around 11%. If you look at the farthest the Moon can get from us and the nearest it can get to us, that is around 11% difference. This also means that when it’s farther away it looks smaller in the sky. When it’s nearer to us it looks bigger in the sky. This difference is also roughly 11%.

Now, if you get a total solar eclipse when the Moon is slightly farther away from us in its orbit and therefore it looks slightly smaller on the sky then at mid-eclipse for people directly under the central shadow the Moon will be too small to completely cover the Sun and therefore it will cover only a part of the Sun and mid-eclipse it’ll be concentric you’ll get a ring of the Sun around the Moon in the centre. And this is called a ring of fire. The ring is also called an annular and therefore we call this an annular solar eclipse.

Dan: [00:11:55] And how often do we get an annular solar eclipse compared to a total solar eclipse?

Niruj: [00:12:01] Roughly similar, similar frequency. So a total solar eclipse or an annular solar eclipse occurs somewhere on Earth roughly every year and a half. We get between two and five solar eclipses per year on Earth. Almost all of them are partial solar eclipses with no totality, but we get a total solar eclipse about three every one and a half years.

And roughly a large part of it, maybe half of then are annual solar eclipses. It depends on how far away the Moon is from us when the total solar eclipse happens.

Dan: [00:12:37] And Prospery, perhaps you can just explain to us when is this going to be visible and where? So I know it’s visible over a large part of Northern and Central Africa.

When will viewers be able to see this?

Prospery: [00:12:53] Yeah, so, likely most African countries will be able to see the eclipse, but it will be more visible in East Africa passing through Ethiopia. Very few countries in the North Western part of Africa will not be able to see; countries like Morocco, parts of Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire. Then the others in the South it’s only South Africa and part of Namibia and Lesotho that won’t see. But from Mozambique, going up as we go towards East Africa, the coverage becomes better and better. So we have nearly all the countries, other than those that have been mentioned will be able to see the eclipse. But it’s more spectacular along the path in Ethiopia and most East African countries. So countries like South Sudan, Ethiopia, and part of the democratic Republic of Congo will see the annular eclipse. As you go North or South it becomes partial.

Dan: [00:14:10] And unfortunately here in Cape Town we’re going to get nothing.

Prospery: [00:14:16] Yeah you won’t see anything in Cape Town, unfortunately.

Dan: [00:14:18] It’s probably not surprising because it’s generally cloudy and rainy at this time of the year anyway so it’s probably just as well.

We will, of course, post links to where and when exactly you can see the partial or annular eclipse on our website. And there’ll also be other websites and links that we’ll share so you can look it up for your precise location.

Alemiye, we did mention it at the beginning, but viewing a solar eclipse is obviously very dangerous. You don’t want to look at the Sun at any time with your naked eye, whether it’s an eclipse or not. How are you planning to communicate this to people who want to see this? How can they safely view the solar eclipse?

Alemiye: [00:15:06] As we already know, looking at the Sun directly will damage our eyes. That’s already known. But what makes it different in this year’s annular eclipse is that we are not only protecting our eyes, but we have to also use COVID-19 safety measures as well. So we are not allowed to make a large gathering of people.

So when it comes to the safety methods that we can see the annular eclipse safely, there are a few methods that everyone can can do besides using the eclipse viewer. So one of the method is pinhole method whereby we can create an upside down image of an object, which should be screened so that we can easily or safely see the annular eclipse especially using the pinhole box.

The other one is a optical projection method whereby we can project light which comes through telescope or binoculars. These are the two safe ways, but there are also a lot of ways that can be used in household items. Like we can use a kitchen sieve or colander method where we can see the annular eclipse easily.

We can also use a natural tree as a pinhole whereby we can produce more than a hundred eclipses at a time. Besides, we can also view the annular eclipse using our finger crossed. So these are some of the safety measures so that we can easily view the annular eclipse. Besides if it is available, it is also highly recommended to use the eclipse glass for our eyes, as well as high-end solar filters for our telescopes. So whenever we do have these filters I think we can easily see without damaging our eyes. But if it’s not available, I think we can use the methods like, as I mentioned, the pinhole method using a pinhole box and as well as household materials like a kitchen sieve. So in this way, you can find further explanations in different YouTube videos, as well as websites, pages, how we are going to easily see this one in practical methods where people can see that and follow the procedures.

So we strictly advise not to see the Sun without proper eyeglasses, as well as we are not advising people gathering together because of this COVID-19 pandemic. So this is a way how we can easily see the annular eclipse.

Dan: [00:17:49] That’s a very good point. The COVID pandemic and getting large groups together is obviously something we would ordinarily have done, and now it’s very strongly discouraged. It’s really necessary for us to try and communicate to people who want to view this how they can do it themselves. And again, we’ll share links on our website on how you can go about this.

Do you know of any events that are taking place, which will be done in a safe manner with correct social distancing that people can attend along the line of maximum eclipse?

Alemiye: [00:18:24] Yeah, there are a lot of activities that’s going on to collect us for this activity using a social media platform as well as digital media like television, direct live transmissions. For instance, in Ethiopia, we have already planned and done a lot of work to telecast these events from Lalibela which is a historical site where it is known by UNESCO there. So we are going to transmit from there from Ethiopia. Also in Kenya, there is a traveling telescope group whereby they also transmit this through webcast.

Also from Tanzania, there’s at Mount Meru Observatory there are people who are already doing this activity to try and transmit it live so people can easily see from their home. We are also trying to have some eyeglass from our supporters, Astronomy Resource Board. Whenever we get these things we will distribute whereby it can be used individually or in a family so that we can also minimize the contacts between people.

Dan: [00:19:31] Excellent. I’ll definitely be following some of the live streams. It’ll be wonderful to see. I’ve never seen an annular solar eclipse before myself. Have any of you guys seen one before?

Niruj: [00:19:43] Yes, I have. I went back home to India last December, 2019 partly to see the annular solar eclipse from Southern India, which happened to pass through a very old and big radio telescope in Ooty in Tamil Nadu in India. It was fantastic. I have seen a total solar eclipse in 1995 which was just beautiful, but annular solar eclipses are very different. It’s beautiful in a very different way. You don’t see the corona, the sky doesn’t get completely dark, but then the ring of fire of the Sun which is exposed for a few minutes was just breathtaking so I’m very happy that I saw it last year.

Dan: [00:20:18] Yeah, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a total solar eclipse but not an annular solar eclipse. That’s definitely one I need to add to my collection.

Niruj: [00:20:26] Can I just add that there are quite a few eclipses coming up the next decade. Unfortunately, this eclipse is going to be made difficult to see because of COVID as Alemiye said. There are going to be partial solar eclipses visible in various parts of Africa in ‘21 and ‘22, ‘25, ‘25 etcetera. There’ll be an annular solar eclipse next from Africa on the 6th February 2027, which will be seen from parts of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and so on. There’ll be a total solar eclipse on the 2nd August 2027 which will pass through Northern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia.

There’ll be another annular solar eclipse on 26th January 2028 and 1st June 2030. So there are a few more eclipses to look forward to so if you miss this one, don’t worry.

Dan: [00:21:14] Yeah, I’ve already got my accommodation booked for the 1st of June, 2030. That one’s passing straight through South Africa and I can’t wait. Uh, so as always we’ll post links where viewers and listeners can get more details, but Niruj, is there any one location at the moment where all of the information is getting stored and distributed from?

Niruj: [00:21:40] Yes Daniel. On behalf of the African Astronomical Society, we have been producing a lot of material and putting up online for people to look at and download and share for free. All of it is on our website, which is ‘www.africanastronomicalsociety.org’. That is ‘www.africanastronomicalsociety.org’. And there if you click on the link for outreach you’ll see the eclipse page and on the eclipse page, you’ll see a bunch of resources.

We are also putting them up on Facebook. Our Facebook page is AfAS 2.0. Our Twitter and Instagram handles are @AfricaAstronomy. Now all of these handles are also mentioned on our website.

So, what will you find on our website? The first thing you will find is a handbook to download. The handbook you can download as a PDF. Each section on the handbook is also available on the website to read individually section by section. Now, this handbook tells you what a solar eclipse is, what is special about an annular eclipse, where and when can you see the eclipse on the 21st June, which countries does it pass through, which countries can you see it from, and it has a time of the beginning, middle, and end of the eclipse for each country in Africa which you can look at for your own country. It has a detailed section on how to protect your eyes during the eclipse because as Alemiye mentioned, it’s not good to look at the Sun directly through naked eyes or through any optics.

It also has a long section with a few examples of very simple, cheap or no-cost methods of looking at the eclipse from your houses. Like Alemiye mentioned, they’re looking at it through a colander or a sieve, making a pinhole box using cardboard, white paper, ruler, and then looking at the shadows or the gap between the leaves under the trees to look at it and so on. So these are all methods with which we are looking at during this COVID pandemic which are safe to see and which do not require any complicated equipment for you to buy. So we advice you look at that. We also have a list of upcoming solar eclipses, a bunch of online links to other sites which give you more information, as well as we have contact information for each country in Africa so you can call them up or email them to get to know more about what is happening in your own country as well. And we are also getting this handbook done in Swahili and Amharic with the help of people in Tanzania and Ethiopia. In addition, we have seven posters which are very accessible and public friendly, which talk about all of this with a lot of nice images, which you can download and share on WhatsApp and Facebook and so on. We also are going to release an Android app, a free Android app about the eclipse which is being developed by the Astronomical Society of India which are adapted for Africa. This will be very useful. It’s a free download, it’s very, very small. So we will be releasing it today so please do that. It also has information as well as interactive maps for you.

We also are going to put up on the website and on social media a list of all of the live telecasts, not only from Africa, but also from across the world. So I do encourage you to go and look at this website and follow us on social media and you’ll get to know more about this eclipse and also future events. This is done by the African Astronomical Society with a lot of help from other people including the regional nodes of the OAD and other astronomers across the continent.

Dan: [00:25:07] Excellent. Thank you very much, Niruj. A very, very exciting event coming. Thank you to all three of you, Niruh, Prospery, and Alemiye for joining us today and I wish you clear skies for the 21st of June so that you hopefully get a great sighting.

Alemiye: [00:25:23] Yeah, thank you.

Prosperity: [00:25:23] Thanks, Daniel.

Niruj: [00:25:25] It was a pleasure chatting to you. Thank you.

Dan: [00:25:28] Great guys, the pleasure was all mine. Thank you very much. Keep well.

Jacinta: [00:25:42] Thanks for that, Dan, it was great to hear from them. And just another warning, please don’t look at the Sun, please don’t point your telescope at the Sun, and please don’t point your binoculars at the Sun ever, even in the peak of the eclipse, and please observe the COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings.

Okay. So Dan, just remind us where we can get more information on the eclipse from and how to build a pinhole camera.

Dan: [00:26:07] Yeah. So we’ll post all of the links on our website, thecosmicsavannah.com and otherwise, the direct link will be on the African Astronomical Society website. So you can just Google African Astronomical Society. They have all the details there of when it will be visible in your location. They’ve actually put together a little app too. So we’ll put all those links up there and also some details of how you can make your own pinhole camera so that you can view the eclipse safely wherever you are.

Jacinta: [00:26:33] Very cool. So for all of those who will be along the path of annularity have an enjoyable experience. I wish I could see it, but hopefully, you manage to get up on time and have a look at that. It should be really interesting.

Dan: [00:26:47] Yeah, eclipses are always very exciting.

Jacinta: [00:26:49] Well, I guess that’s us back on hiatus now. What are you up to during the break?

Dan: [00:26:55] Yeah, you know, trying to stay sane at home with the kids and trying to get some work done obviously in the meantime. Yeah. It’ll be nice to be back in the office and back to The Cosmic Savannah. Hopefully, that can happen soon. Yourself? What are you up to?

Jacinta: [00:27:09] Working from home. I’m working on my science paper which maybe you’ll be able to interview me on when we start up the next season. 

Dan: [00:27:19] Oh great!

Jacinta: [00:27:21] And we’re also running the boot camp for several volunteer students here in South Africa who will be helping us with The Cosmic Savannah next season, which we’re very excited about to grow The Cosmic Savannah family. We’re pretty far through the boot camp now. The students have just made their own mini-episodes, which hopefully we’ll be publishing in the next few weeks here on The Cosmic Savannah so you get to hear from them yourselves. And then hopefully as you say, Dan, hopefully, the pandemic lifts soon and we can start again with season three.

Dan: [00:27:50] Looking forward to it. All right. We should probably just say thanks again to our guests Niruj Ramanujam, Alemiye Mamo, and Prospery Simpemba for joining us and we’ll chat to you again soon.

Jacinta: [00:27:59] Stay safe, everybody.