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computers in astronomy

Shadow Painting the Globe

Stay long enough in one spot and youll be in the path of a total eclipse of the Sun.

By Jean Meeus

n the course of online discussion

about the August 11th total solar
eclipse, Govert Schilling of Utrecht,
the Netherlands, posted the following message on an electronic mailing list
last December 24th:
Suppose I would take a globe and paint
the path of totality of every eclipse
black. How many eclipses would I need
before every part of the earth is black?
In other words, how long would it take
for every single spot on the earth to experience at least one total solar eclipse?
(Or, put differently, are there places on
the surface of earth where no total
solar eclipse has occurred for, say, the
past 3000 and the coming 3000 years?)

A fascinating quandary, indeed, and I

accepted the challenge. Because the problem is very difficult, maybe even impossible, to solve theoretically, I chose a bruteforce solution, consisting of calculating
every solar-eclipse path until the globe is
fully painted.
I had considered plotting successive
eclipse tracks on a map, but this seemed
problematic. A very small region escaping from all total eclipses could easily remain unnoticed. Moreover, the northern
and southern limits of totality, when
plotted on a computer screen or drawn
on paper, are not infinitely thin lines.
Their thickness could cover places just
outside, but very close to, the actual path
where an eclipse is total.
I preferred a completely mathematical
approach, considering a large number of
points distributed as uniformly as possible over the Earths surface. I chose sites
at every integer degree of geographic
longitude (0 to 359) on each 1 parallel
of latitude (from 89 north to 89 south).
I did not need to worry about the two
poles, because a separate calculation had
already shown that there was a total solar
eclipse visible at the North Pole on July
6, 1815, and that another will be visible

Successive years of total solar eclipses gradually coat the planet, giving every place on Earth
a spot under the Moons shadow. Illustration by Kip Henrie.

from the South Pole on January 16, 2094.

Now I had a spherical grid of 179 by
360, or 64,440 points. I wanted to construct a character string consisting of
64,440 zeros, one for each of the points on
the globe. A zero would change into a one
when the location it represented experienced totality. However, the computer language I used, QuickBASIC, does not accept
such long strings; the maximum allowed
length is 32,767 characters. Fortunately,
half of 64,440 is just a little smaller than
this maximum, so I performed the calculation for each hemisphere separately.
1999 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

A requirement to calculate anything

about a given solar eclipse (such as local
circumstances or points on the northern
and southern limits of totality) is having
the so-called Besselian elements. Since
these values had already been accurately
calculated for all eclipses from 2000 B.C.
to A.D. 3400, I could use these data for
the computer program I wrote specially
to solve the painted-globe problem.
First, I considered all total and annular-total eclipses from A.D. 1901 to 2200.
For each eclipse, the circumstances at
each of the 32,400 sites were calculated.
Sky & Telescope August 1999


computers in astronomy



Most of the globe is painted by eclipse paths after only a few centuries, as seen in this series of maps (left to right) showing 100, 200, and 300
years of total-eclipse paths over North America. It takes millenniums to pick up the straggling areas. The author determined that 63 percent of
the Northern Hemisphere is covered after 300 years, and 92 percent is covered after 800 years. Diagrams by Jean Meeus.


After three centuries, 11,849 points (37

percent) remained zeros.
I continued the calculation by considering the earlier period from A.D. 1401
to 1900, but only for those points that
had not yet been visited by a total
eclipse. This allowed the calculation to
become more and more rapid, as fewer
zeros remained in the string. After this
second run, 2,618 empty points lingered.
I pressed further. After having considered
all the years from 800 B.C. to A.D. 2200,
just four empty points endured. Extending to A.D. 2800 finally covered those
stragglers; now the long character string
consisted completely of ones. The total
calculation for the 32,400 points in the
Northern Hemisphere had taken 90 minutes, very satisfying on my 166-megahertz Pentium processor.
Nevertheless, I was still only half done.
I repeated the calculation for the Southern Hemisphere, again for the years from
800 B.C. to A.D. 2800. Five locations remained vacant. At this point, it appeared
that some spots on the Earths surface
may not be under the Moons shadow for
36 centuries, though this must be exceedingly rare. It is known that for a
given location on the globe the mean frequency is about one total solar eclipse
every 375 years; however, the actual distribution is very irregular. A small region
in New Guinea experienced two total
eclipses within 18 months in 198384!
The remaining five empty points in the

Southern Hemisphere were finally covered by including 1400 to 800 B.C. Thus
each of the 64,440 points was covered by
at least one total solar eclipse between
1400 B.C. and A.D. 2800.
Of course, this grid of 64,440 points
distributed over the globe does not represent all places on Earths surface. Because
the points along each parallel of latitude
were separated by 1 in longitude, they
were much closer to each other at high
latitudes than near the equator. Indeed, at
the equator 1 of longitude corresponds
to 111 kilometers; this distance is reduced
to only 2 km at 89 latitude. Consequently, some remaining places were up to 79
km from the grid points considered.
I repeated the whole calculation for
other points, so that the separation in
both longitude and latitude was now 12.
After again considering the period from
1400 B.C. to A.D. 2800, there remained
two empty points: neighboring spots in
the southern Pacific Ocean at latitude
62 30 south, and west longitudes 160
30 and 161. These two stubborn places
were finally covered by extending the calculation to A.D. 3158.
In the end, all 258,482 points I considered on the globe (including the two
poles) were covered at least once by total
solar eclipse tracks during 46 centuries
a far cry from the 50,000 to 500,000
years guessed by one of the readers of
Schillings message. Another reader even
thought that it would take millions of

August 1999 Sky & Telescope

1999 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

years to paint the globe completely.

Nevertheless, theres still plenty of
room between those quarter-of-a-million
points. But from the foregoing we may
assume with confidence that these regions are likewise covered at least once
by the Moons umbra in a period of not
more than 4,000 or 5,000 years.
Hey, Not So Fast . . .
Readers familiar with eclipse calculation
may wonder how I accounted for the
quantity called Delta T in this project.
Delta T (DT) is a very important
quantity in the calculation of solar
eclipses and of occultations of stars by
the Moon. It is the difference, at a given
instant, between Universal Time and the
uniform time scale known as Dynamical
Time. While the latter is defined by
atomic clocks, Universal Time is based
on the rotation of the Earth around its
axis. As this rotation gradually slows, DT
increases at an ever faster rate the farther
we are away from A.D. 1900, into the future as well as into the past (see the February issue, page 53).
We need accurate knowledge of DT
for the calculation of exact times of an
eclipse, but it is also of utmost importance for determining exactly where the
path of totality falls on Earths surface
and the magnitude of the eclipse (how
much of the Suns disk is covered by the
Moon) at a given place. Differences arise
because the Earth rotates during the DT

interval and 1 of longitude corresponds

to 4 minutes of time. Therefore, if the
adopted value for DT is, say, 4 minutes
too large, the calculated positions of the
centerline and limits will be 1 of longitude too far to the east. Latitude is not
The situation is all the more complicated because DT is not increasing regularly. It undergoes unpredictable fluctuations. For instance, from 1968 to 1980
DT increased by almost exactly one second per year, but from December 1997
to December 1998 the increase was only
0.5 second. Consequently, its impossible
to predict the exact time a solar eclipse
in A.D. 2100 begins at a given place even
if we make use of a perfectly accurate
lunar ephemeris.
The value of DT is known with sufficient accuracy from about A.D. 1620 to
2000. For years outside this period, I used
formulas recently issued by Jean Chapront
of the Bureau des Longitudes, Paris. The
reader may object that some of the
eclipses I considered total at certain
points were or will be, in fact, partial because the adopted value for DT was
wrong. I dont dispute this. On the other
hand, some other eclipses, which according to my calculations were only partial,
certainly were or will be total.
Since I found at least one total eclipse
during 1400 B.C. to A.D. 3158 for all of
those 258,482 points, we may be sure
that they will have a total eclipse at least
once during about 40 or 50 centuries for
any value we adopt for DT. To validate
this assumption, I repeated the whole
calculation using zero for DT for all
years. Such a value is absolutely wrong
for epochs in the distant past and future.
Starting from 1400 B.C., I found that by
A.D. 2870 all except one of the considered 258,482 places on the Earths surface are painted by a total eclipse. Going
back to 1638 B.C. covered it.
We may conclude that after about 45
centuries the whole Earth is painted by
tracks of total solar eclipses. However, it
takes only 20 centuries to paint more
than 99 percent of the globe, and 30 centuries to coat more than 99.9 percent. So
the second half of those 45 centuries is
needed to ascertain that the last few remaining patches not yet touched by the
lunar shadow are finally covered too.


Jean Meeus, a pioneer of astronomical calculations with personal computers, is a frequent

contributor to Sky & Telescope.
1999 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sky & Telescope August 1999