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Solar eclipse elicits awe.

Sky darkens, day brightens

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway - Sky-gazers looked up in awe Friday as the moon blocked the sun in a total solar eclipse that momentarily darkened a slice of northern Europe.

The most spectacular viewing came on Norway's Svalbard islands near the North Pole, where a bright clear day and blindingly white snow highlighted the cosmic wonder that used to bring ancient civilizations to a trembling halt. Visitors to the Arctic islands were treated to a full view of the sun's corona - a faint ring of rays surrounding the moon - that is only visible during a total eclipse.

"All of the various things that you're supposed to see - the shadow bands, the corona, both diamond rings, prominences - it had everything. It had absolutely everything," said Richard Patching, 63, visiting from Canada.

Elsewhere, the much-anticipated solar eclipse was a bit of a letdown. In the Faeroe Islands - the only place besides Svalbard where the eclipse was total - a blanket of clouds meant thousands of visitors missed out on the event, apart from the eerie darkness from the moon's shadow.

"Well it was very close," said Fred Espenak, a retired NASA scientist visiting the island group in the North Atlantic. "If the eclipse had been 25 minutes later, it would have been fantastic. But the clouds ruined it for us. So I'm very disappointed."

About 20,000 people had traveled to the Faeroe Islands and Svalbard to watch the eclipse.

A solar eclipse happens when the moon lines up between the sun and Earth. This casts a lunar shadow on Earth's surface and obscures the sun. In a partial eclipse, only part of the sun is blotted out.

"Some people were surprised to see how fast it became dark," said Sigrun Skalagard, who watched in the northern Faeroes.

In Svalbard, midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, a few hundred people had gathered on a flat frozen valley overlooking the mountains. They shouted and whooped with delight as the moon's shadow crossed the surface of the sun, producing a dramatic interplay of light and dark over the snowy landscape.

"It was just fabulous, just beautiful and at the same time a bit odd and it was too short," said Mary Rannestad, 60, from Minnesota.

A partial solar eclipse could be seen across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. In Germany, a world leader in solar power, fears that the flood of sunshine after the eclipse would overload the system never materialized.