What Is the Difference Between a Solar and Lunar Eclipse?

difference-between-solar-lunar-eclipse Credit: Eric Schnakenberg/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth so that the Moon's shadow falls on the Earth. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth passes between the Sun and Moon and the Sun casts the Earth's shadow on the Moon. Both events happen only when the Sun, Moon and Earth are aligned. A solar eclipse can only happen during a new moon, and a lunar eclipse can only take place on a full moon.

Solar eclipses are total, partial or annular. A total eclipse occurs when the Sun is blocked entirely. In a partial eclipse, only a portion of the Sun is blocked. An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon is in orbit at its farthest point and the sun causes a ring of light to appear around the Moon.

Lunar eclipses occur at night and only when the Moon is directly opposite the Sun. A lunar eclipse is easier to see than a solar eclipse because the Moon is much closer to the Earth. Watching a lunar eclipse is possible without wearing eye protection. It is even possible to point a telescope at the moon during a lunar eclipse to get a better view. A solar eclipse happens during the day and is unsafe to watch without protective eye wear. Solar eclipses are rare and short in duration. Few people are able to see them. A lunar eclipse lasts a few hours and occurs more frequently.

People throughout history have generally been more profoundly affected by solar eclipses than by lunar eclipses. The ancient Chinese thought a solar eclipse occurred when a dragon came to eat the sun. Today, scientists eagerly await solar eclipses to help them learn more about the sun.