Why do solar eclipses happen?

This article was originally featured on The Conversation.

On April 8, 2024, millions across the U.S. will have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to view a total solar eclipse. Cities including Austin, Texas; Buffalo, New York; and Cleveland, Ohio, will have a direct view of this rare cosmic event that lasts for just a few hours.

While you can see many astronomical events, such as comets and meteor showers, from anywhere on Earth, eclipses are different. You need to travel to what’s called the path of totality to experience the full eclipse. Only certain places get an eclipse’s full show, and that’s because of scale.

The relatively small size of the Moon and its shadow make eclipses truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. On average, total solar eclipses are visible somewhere on Earth once every few years. But from any one location on Earth, it is roughly 375 years between solar eclipses.

I’m an astronomer, but I have never seen a total solar eclipse, so I plan to drive to Erie, Pennsylvania, in the path of totality, for this one. This is one of the few chances I have to see a total eclipse without making a much more expensive trip to someplace more remote. Many people have asked me why nearby eclipses are so rare, and the answer is related to the size of the Moon and its distance from the Sun.

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