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2001 June 21 Total Solar Eclipse
2001 Total Solar Eclipse
This sequence shows the entire eclipse from start to finish.
(click to see more photos)

The Experience of Totality

Adapted from Chapter 1 of Totality: Eclipses of the Sun

Copyright ©1999 by Mark Littmann, Ken Willcox and Fred Espenak

First contact. A tiny nick appears on the western side of the Sun. The eye detects no difference in the amount of sunlight. Nothing but that nick portends anything out of the ordinary. But as the nick becomes a gouge in the face of the Sun, a sense of anticipation begins. This will be no ordinary day.

Still, things proceed leisurely for the first half hour or so, until the Sun is more than half covered. Now, gradually at first, then faster and faster, extraordinary things begin to happen. The sky is still bright, but the blue is a little duller. On the ground around you the light is beginning to diminish. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, the landscape takes on a steely gray metallic cast.

As the minutes pass, the pace quickens. With about a quarter hour left until totality, the western sky is now darker than the east, regardless of where the Sun is in the sky. The shadow of the Moon is approaching. Even if you have never seen a total eclipse of the Sun before, you know that something amazing is going to happen, is happening now--and that it is beyond normal human experience.

Less than fifteen minutes until totality. The Sun, a narrowing crescent, is still fiercely bright, but the blueness of the sky has deepened into blue-gray or violet. The darkness of the sky begins to close in around the Sun. The Sun does not fill the heavens with brightness anymore.

Five minutes to totality. The darkness in the west is very noticeable and gathering strength, a dark amorphous form rising upward and spreading out along the western horizon. It builds like a massive storm, but in utter silence, with no rumble of distant thunder. And now the darkness begins to float up above the horizon, revealing a yellow or orange twilight beneath. You are already seeing through the Moon's narrow shadow to the resurgent sunlight beyond.

The acceleration of events intensifies. The crescent Sun is now a blazing white sliver, like a welder's torch. The darkening sky continues to close in around the Sun, faster, engulfing it.

Minutes have become seconds. The ends of the bare sliver of the Sun break into individual points of intense white light--Baily's Beads--the last rays of sunlight passing through the deepest lunar valleys. Opposite the crescent, a ghostly round silhouette looms into view. It is the dark limb of the Moon, framed by a white opalescent glow which creates a halo around the darkened Sun. The corona--the most striking and unexpected of all the features of a total eclipse--is emerging.

1999 Diamond Ring Effect
1999 Diamond Ring Effect
The "diamong ring" effect is seen just before totality begins.
(click to see more photos)

Almost instantaneously, the incredibly thin crescent Sun fragments into a series of brilliant beads and short arcs which dwindle and vanish in rapid succession. And now, there is only one bead, set like a single dazzling diamond in a ring."

But its penetrating brilliance rapidly fades as if it were sucked into an abyss.


Where the Sun once stood, there is a black disk in the sky, outlined by the soft pearly white glow of the corona, about the brightness of a Full Moon. Small but vibrant reddish features stand at the eastern rim of the Moon's disk, contrasting vividly with the white of the corona and the black where the Sun is hidden. These are the prominences, giant clouds of hot gas in the Sun's lower atmosphere. They are always a surprise, each unique in shape and size, different yesterday and tomorrow from what they are at this special moment.

You are standing in the shadow of the Moon.

It is dark enough to see Venus and Mercury and whichever of the brightest planets and stars happen to be close to the Sun's position and above the horizon. But it is not the dark of night. Looking across the landscape at the horizon in all directions, you see beyond the shadow to where the eclipse is not total, an eerie twilight of orange and yellow. From this light beyond the darkness which envelops you comes an inexorable sense that time is limited.

2006 Mar 29 Total Solar Eclipse
2006 Total Solar Eclipse
A composite image reveals subtle structure in the Sun's corona.
(click to see more photos)

Now, at the midpoint in totality, the corona stands out most clearly, its shape and extent never quite the same from one eclipse to another. And only the eye can do the corona justice, its special pattern of faint wisps and spikes on this day never seen before and never to be seen again.

Yet around you at the horizon is a warning that totality is drawing to an end. The west is brightening while in the east the darkness is deepening and descending toward the horizon. Above you, prominences appear at the western edge of the Moon. The edge brightens.

Suddenly totality is over! A brilliant bead of sunlight appears. This heavenly diamond quickly grows into a band of several jewels which merge together to form the returning crescent Sun. The dark shadow of the Moon silently slips past you and rushes off toward the east.

It is then you ask, "When is the next one?"

For more information, see:

Totality - Eclipses of the Sun

Second Edition
by Mark Littmann, Ken Willcox and Fred Espenak

Order Totality from

Copyright ©1999 by Mark Littmann, Ken Willcox and Fred Espenak

All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced, published, copied or transmitted in any form, including electronically on the Internet or World Wide Web, without written permission of the authors.

Contact Espenak (at MrEclipse) for more information.

Eclipse Resources

Copyright Notice

All photographs, text and web pages are © Copyright 2007 by Fred Espenak, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved. They may not be reproduced, published, copied or transmitted in any form, including electronically on the Internet or WWW, without written permission of the author. The photos have been digitally watermarked.

The photographs may be licensed for commercial, editorial, and educational use. Contact Espenak (at MrEclipse) for photo use in print, web, video, CD and all other media.

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Last revised: 2008 Jan 22