A solar eclipse is a very brief yet extraordinary phenomenon that occurs as the earth and her moon orbiting the sun - ever rotating in harmonious balance with one another - align in such a way that the light of the sun is either wholly or partially blocked by the moon. For those whose interest is piqued, viewing a total eclipse can be quite tricky as it can only be done from the location on earth's surface that at the moment of eclipse lies within the relatively narrow boundary known as "the path of totality," the region within the shadow of the moon.
There are a few different types of solar eclipses; total, when the sun is completely blocked; partial, when due to the current distance of the moon from earth and sun is too small visually to block the sun entirely; and hybrid, a rare eclipse in which part of the viewing path is in total and the rest is in partial.
Total eclipses of the sun are fairly rare occurring at most once every year or two. The most recent event was August 1st, 2008. The path of totality was a narrow band stretching from northern Canada through central Russia and into China and it lasted all of two minutes. Also some parts of the northeast coast of North America that barely touched the moon's shadow, known as the penumbra witnessed a partial eclipse.
Besides having to track the path and timing of solar eclipses viewing is also more complicated than just looking up at the sky. It is never safe to look directly at the sun and this holds true even during an eclipse. The only safe moment is when the sun is totally eclipsed by the moon but in the phases before and after that singular moment the brightness of the sun can still cause eye damage.
Fortunately there are safe options for eclipse viewing, the most popular of which is the pinhole projection method. With your back to sun, hold up a piece of cardboard with a small pinhole poked through it and project the light through the hole onto either another sheet of cardboard or a piece of paper, the image of the sun is projected onto the paper and allows for safe viewing as you are not looking directly at the sun. There are also specifically designed solar filters for sun viewing that can be attached to cameras, binoculars and telescopes, a quick thumb through an astronomy magazine or website will give you an idea of the types available.
Solar eclipses are undoubtedly a wonder of nature and described by many who have witnessed them as one of the most spectacular things you will ever see. Fortunately in the internet age it is relatively easy to find all the information that you need to be able to enjoy these events.
NASA predicts the next total solar eclipse will occur on July 22nd 2009 with a path of totality beginning in India crossing through Nepal and parts of China, the Ryukyu Islands of Japan and out across the Pacific Ocean.
Further information available here:
NASA Solar Eclipse Website, http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html
The beginners guide to solar eclipses, http://www.mreclipse.com/Special/SEprimer.html
How and where to go see the next eclipse, http://www.eclipse-journeys.com/