If you happen to be in the Southern Hemisphere on Feb. 26, look up. You might just catch the first stunning solar eclipse of 2017.
Called an annular eclipse or "ring of fire," this celestial phenomenon occurs when the moon passes in front of the sun. Because of its elliptical orbit, the moon will be nearly at its farthest point from Earth (roughly 235,009 miles) and will therefore not appear to cover the entirety of the sun's surface. As a result, a beautiful glowing ring will form around the moon, an overlay akin to placing a penny on a nickel.
You can see an annular eclipse captured in September 2016 above Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean in the video below:
Right place, right time
As with other eclipses, only a sliver of the planet's population will be able to view Sunday's full ring of fire. The narrow path will average 45 miles and span some 8,500 miles from the South Pacific Ocean through South America, across the South Atlantic and into Africa. Outside this band, a partial solar eclipse will be visible to millions more.
"On a scale of 0 to 10 of immersion and intensity, a partial eclipse I would rate about a 4," writes Dr. Kate Russo, a noted Australian eclipse chaser. "It is interesting, it makes you think about the Universe in a three-dimensional way, it makes you feel insignificant, you become aware of the inevitability of the Universal clock. An Annular Eclipse I would rate about a 9 – there are added experiences such as the gradual dimming of light, animal reactions, the approaching darkness, and seeing the Ring. It is pretty awesome."
Annular eclipses generally happen every one or two years and in various regions around the globe. After this show in the Southern Hemisphere, the next one will appear over Asia on Dec. 26, 2019. Those in North America will get their chance to experience a beautiful ring of fire on Oct. 14, 2023.
As you might expect, this Sunday's annular eclipse is also being live streamed online for those nowhere near the prime viewing spots. You can join the party at 7 a.m. EST via the astronomy site Slooh, which will include commentary from solar scientists, or hit the live stream provided by Time and Date below.
Bigger solar eclipse coming later this year
While this week's eclipse promises to be a dazzling one, North American will play host on Aug. 21 to biggest celestial event of the year: a total solar eclipse. It's never too early to start planning for what promises to be one of the greatest skywatching events in decades.
And remember! The only time it's safe to view a solar eclipse without special eye protection is during the very brief period of totality when the sun is 100 percent blocked by the moon. To do so outside this rare event is to risk permanent eye damage and even blindness. You can learn more about eye safety during an eclipse via NASA here.