What Is a Solar Eclipse? Here Are the Different Types, What They Mean, and When They Occur

Photo: Getty Images/Pitris
If you've ever experienced a solar eclipse in action, you might associate the astronomical event with wearing cool glasses that resemble 3D movie-theater specs and staring at the sky as the sun seems to disappear from view. The short answer for what a solar eclipse really is? A phenomenon that occurs when the moon passes directly between the sun and the Earth, partially or fully obscuring the light of the sun (as will be the case with the upcoming total solar eclipse in Aries on April 8, 2024).

But when you dive into the meaning of a solar eclipse, you'll discover it's so much more than an uncanny blip in daylight. Solar eclipses are both astronomically rare and astrologically significant. In fact, astrologer and tarot reader Megan Skinner, co-host of the So Divine! podcast, puts eclipses at the top of her list in terms of big astrological events, noting that any solar eclipse is "an incredibly powerful time to be awakened and align with ourselves on a deeper and higher level." (More on the meaning of solar eclipses in astrology to come below.)

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What causes a solar eclipse?

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes directly between the sun and the earth, forming a straight line and either partially or totally obscuring the sun's light from our perspective. For this to happen, the moon's orbit around Earth has to align on the same horizontal plane as the Earth's orbit around the sun, called the ecliptic.

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes directly between the sun and the earth, forming a straight line and either partially or totally obscuring the sun's light from our perspective.

When that direct line-up occurs, the moon will be located at one of the two lunar nodes. These are invisible points in the sky where the moon's orbit and the Earth's orbit intersect, one of which is in the northern hemisphere (the north node) and the other of which is in the southern hemisphere (the south node).

Flip the alignment so that the Earth is directly between the sun and the moon (with the moon located near one of the nodes), and you have a lunar eclipse instead, which always occurs about two weeks before or after a solar eclipse. In this case, the moon will fall either partially or entirely in the shadow of the Earth and appear a rusty-red color (often called a "blood moon") because of how the Earth's atmosphere scatters and filters sunlight.

As for how long either kind of eclipse lasts? For a solar eclipse, the entire process of the moon obscuring the sun can last a few hours, but the period of totality (when the sun is totally obscured by the moon) or annularity (when only a ring of sunlight can be seen around the moon) lasts just a couple seconds to a few minutes, depending on the eclipse.

But with a lunar eclipse, you have more time to observe—which makes sense: The Earth's shadow can keep the moon obscured for longer than the moon can block out the sun. All in all, the total duration of a lunar eclipse is a few hours with totality lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour.

How often does a solar eclipse happen?

Every year, there are between two and five solar eclipses; eclipse season refers to when a pair of solar and lunar eclipses occurs, and it always arrives in the spring and in the fall.

Across the stages of the full moon cycle, solar eclipses always line up with new moons, and lunar eclipses always line up with full moons, explains astrologer Stephanie Gailing, author of The Complete Guide to Living by the Moon and Skinner's co-host of the So Divine! podcast. But if you've been following along, you'll also note that not every new moon is a solar eclipse, and not every full moon is a lunar eclipse. (Remember the whole thing about all squares being rectangles but not all rectangles being squares?)

The reason why is because the moon's orbit doesn't always line up horizontally with the Earth's orbit around the sun to form that straight line across all three celestial bodies; instead, the new and full moons usually occur above or below the sun from our perspective, thus not eclipsing it or falling within its shadow.

Types of solar eclipses

The different types of solar eclipses correspond to how much of the sun is blocked or eclipsed by the moon, based on its location in the sky.

Total solar eclipse

This is when the moon completely obscures the sun and blocks all its light, leading to an unusual period of darkness in the middle of the day. You might remember the most recent total solar eclipse during which much of the U.S. was in the path of totality (aka the path traced by the moon's shadow), on August 21, 2017. The upcoming solar eclipse in Aries on April 8, 2024, is also a total solar eclipse, and its path of totality will cross over much of the United States.

Future total solar eclipses visible in North America: April 8, 2024; August 23, 2044

Annular solar eclipse

This type of eclipse happens when the moon passes directly between the sun and Earth but when it's at or near its farthest point of its orbit from Earth. This means the moon isn't close enough to Earth to completely block out the sun, so a ring of sunlight (also called annularity) can be seen around it, giving this kind of eclipse its nickname as a "ring of fire" eclipse.

This is the type of eclipse that we witnessed on October 14, 2023. (While a narrow swath of people in the path of annularity from Oregon to Texas were able to see the ring of light around the moon when the eclipse arrived, plenty of others across North America witnessed a partial solar eclipse.)

Future annular solar eclipses visible in North America: January 26, 2028

Partial solar eclipse

This kind of eclipse happens when the moon, sun, and Earth aren't completely lined up (picture the globe of the moon covering just part of the sun), meaning the sun will appear as a crescent in the sky. Given that a portion of its light still reaches Earth, the sky will dim to a twilight color during a partial solar eclipse but will not darken completely.

As noted above, plenty of people on Earth will observe a partial solar eclipse whenever a total or annular solar eclipse occurs, as the path of totality or annularity covers a much narrower swath of the Earth's surface than the broader shadow of the moon, which blocks just a portion of the sun across a wider region.

Future partial solar eclipses visible in North America: March 29, 2025

Hybrid solar eclipse

This is the rare occurrence when an eclipse shifts between total and annular, as the moon's shadow traverses the globe, due to the curvature of the Earth.

Future hybrid solar eclipses visible in North America: November 14, 2031

Meaning of a solar eclipse in astrology

Because a solar eclipse involves either a partial or total plunge into darkness, Skinner says the event can push us to turn inward and examine the deeper parts of ourselves, which can result in seismic change. A necessary part of this change, she says, is often releasing or surrendering something—even if you don't quite know what yet. After all, things are being eclipsed or obscured and are thus not typically clear.

Because eclipses occur when the moon is located at or near the north or south node (which are both points associated with fate or destiny in astrology), they tend to be synonymous with fated change. "With a solar eclipse, you'll see unexpected events in the world or surrounding material entities and world structures, whereas with a lunar eclipse, it's more about personal changes with things shifting emotionally or psychologically," says Skinner on how solar and lunar eclipses carry different spiritual meanings.

"With a solar eclipse, you'll see unexpected events in the world or surrounding material entities and world structures." —Megan Skinner, astrologer and tarot reader

The zodiac sign in which a given solar eclipse occurs—which is always the same sign as either the north node or the south node—also colors its energy and affects the realms of life that will experience upheaval or change. And as the nodes shift signs, so, too, do the eclipses.

For example, the October 2023 solar eclipse in Libra (where the south node is located) instigated change around such Libran realms as relationships, the definition of equality, and bringing more pleasure into your life, says Gailing. Whereas, the April 2023 solar eclipse in Aries—which is also where the upcoming total solar eclipse will fall on April 8, 2024—coincided with transformation around such Aries themes as personal courage and fresh starts.

"The nodes always fall in a pair of opposite signs for about a year and a half, and then they switch, so we just finished a [period] where the solar and lunar eclipses were in Scorpio and Taurus, and [after the eclipses in Aries and Libra finish], they'll go into Virgo and Pisces next," explains Gailing.

Frequently Asked Questions About Solar Eclipses

Which zodiac signs are most affected by solar eclipses?

People who have their sun, moon, or rising sign in the same sign as a given solar eclipse will feel it most intensely. And just as any new moon on your birthday can be particularly auspicious, so is a solar eclipse on your birthday, according to Skinner. (In this case, you'll want to pay particular attention to seemingly fated experiences or run-ins or other change on the horizon.)

Those who have major placements in the opposite zodiac sign of a solar eclipse will also feel its energy in a powerful way. For example, with recent and upcoming eclipses in both Aries and Libra, people of both signs are apt to really feel their effects. "In astrology, we often talk in polarities, so any time something affects one sign, it always affects the opposite sign deeply, too," says Skinner.

Additionally, the zodiac signs that share a modality (either cardinal, mutable, or fixed) with the sign in which a solar eclipse occurs can also anticipate feeling it strongly, given their shared behavioral style and approach to the world. (That means the cardinal signs—Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn—are most likely to sense the changes of the Aries and Libra eclipses.)

And more generally, adds Gailing, Cancer and Leo are bound to feel any solar eclipse at an especially deep level because these are the signs ruled by the key players of a solar eclipse: the moon (Cancer) and the sun (Leo).

What should you not do during a solar eclipse?

In terms of your physical safety, you should never stare directly at a total solar eclipse with your bare eyes, even if it seems like the sun is fully blocked by the moon. (Remember how brief the period of totality actually is?) According to NASA, “viewing any part of the sun through a camera lens, binoculars, or a telescope without a special-purpose solar filter secured over the front of the optics will instantly cause severe eye injury.”

Only look at solar eclipses through eclipse glasses or handheld viewers, which have lenses made of black polymer that block nearly all light and can protect the eyes. (By contrast, it's safe to look at lunar eclipses with the naked eye.)

Spiritually speaking, it's a good idea to avoid making any big decisions or setting new plans in motion during solar eclipses, says Skinner, given that they can bring heightened emotions and unexpected change. (That's to say, the typical intention-setting new moon rituals don't exactly apply in the case of a solar eclipse.)

"Consider where you may get triggered [during an eclipse], and be aware of it, but without pushing too far in that direction," says Skinner, with the added suggestion to take a beat before reacting to anything new or different.

What should you do during a solar eclipse?

It's better to lay low and see what shakes out rather than charging ahead or resisting. "If something big is about to take root, space needs to be made for that," says Gailing. "New beginnings often require new endings first."

Use the occasion of a solar eclipse to connect internally with yourself. Skinner recommends journaling about what you might need to let go of or invite into your life so you can understand and process any emotions that may arise, rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.

"Follow the waves of inspiration without waiting for something to be prematurely defined." —Stephanie Gailing, astrologer

At the same time, Gailing suggests not focusing too much on exactly how and where things may be changing in your life. "You don't know how some of the lines are going to be filled in [with eclipses], and that's where some of the stress can come in," she says. "But I always tell people during eclipse season that if it's not clear, it's supposed to be unclear."

That may be hard to hear for folks who like to plan or feel in control of all the things, but Gailing recommends "following the waves of inspiration without pushing for something to be prematurely defined." In other words? Let go, and let... the universe.

So as to weather unexpected change, be sure to tap into whatever elements of self care keep you anchored. Take baths, work gentle movement into your day, and do anything that can "enhance your own personal resilience," says Gailing.

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