It is a rare natural phenomenon that has inspired awe, fear and superstition over the centuries. And, in two days, the spectacle of a solar eclipse will be visible in the UAE for the first time in more than two years. Astronomy fans and those who simply want to see an unusual occurrence have been in a state of excitement as they try to calculate the best spot to sight the partial eclipse on Friday.
A solar eclipse takes place when the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, leaving the Sun wholly or partly obscured. While up to five take place every year, a total eclipse is a rarity as it needs the Moon's inner, or umbral, shadow to sweep the Earth's surface - an occurrence that takes an average of 375 years to happen in the same place twice. Friday's eclipse will only be total in China, Mongolia, Russia and parts of Canada.
In the UAE, experts estimate that up to 13 per cent of the Sun will be obscured for about 90 minutes in the rare sighting, the first to occur since the last partial eclipse on March 29 2006. They have warned spectators to take precautions, as looking directly into the eclipse can cause permanent damage to the eyes and even blindness. Viewing stations will be set up in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah to give enthusiasts a chance to see the phenomenon using special glasses and telescopes with filters, which will protect their eyes.
Hasan al Hariri, of the Dubai Astronomy Group, said: "There is a lot of excitement about it because it is such a rare event and will be viewed around the world. "We will have experts on hand to explain what is happening and a live feed from China so we can watch the total eclipse as it takes place. "We are inviting members of the public to come and watch it safely without risking damage to their eyes as looking into the eclipse can cause instant blindness."
The eclipse is expected to start at 2.40pm and peak at 3.27pm, when the 13 per cent obscuration of the Sun will occur, with the Moon finally passing over by 4.11pm. The Dubai Astronomy Group will be hosting a free event in the observatory in Wellington School from 1.30pm, with presentations explaining the science behind the phenomenon and an opportunity to view the eclipse with free pairs of special glasses or via a telescope projected on to a large screen.
There will also be a question-and-answer session as well as the live footage from China. The Emirates Astronomical Society is expecting up to 100 spectators at a viewing platform near the flagpole on Abu Dhabi's breakwater, where glasses and a telescope with a special filter will be provided. The Sharjah Science Museum has an afternoon of activities planned, with a telescope and pinhole viewing equipment to look at the eclipse safely, and a large screen showing the action.
Ghada Abdullah, the museum's astronomy expert, said: "This is not an everyday occurrence. "People are quite scared by such an event, but we are hoping to educate them." The last total solar eclipse in the UAE was in April 1828, and the next is not expected until September 2081. In ancient times and still in some cultures today, eclipses are feared by those who are not aware of their astronomical explanation, as the Sun seems to disappear in the middle of the day and the sky darkens in a matter of minutes.
During a total eclipse, the Sun is completely obscured by the dark silhouette of the Moon, leaving only a faint corona visible around its edge. Looking directly at the Sun, even for a few seconds, can cause permanent damage to the retina of the eye, blurred vision and, in extreme cases, blindness, because of the intense rays it emits. The retina has no sensitivity to pain, so there is no warning of the injury and the damage may not be apparent for hours.
Under normal conditions, it is impossible to stare at the Sun directly because it is too bright. During an eclipse, it may seem easier to look at it, but while its rays may be obscured, the remaining parts of the Sun are just as bright. Looking at the Sun at that time through an unfiltered telescope, a camera viewfinder or binoculars can be even more dangerous. The safest way to view an eclipse is indirectly, either by projecting its image onto a white piece of paper or card using a telescope or holding a piece of cardboard with a hole in it measuring 1mm in diameter towards the Sun with a second white piece of card behind it in its shadow to reflect the image from the peephole.