Annular Solar Eclipse 2012: Visible in West on Sunday

May 16, 2012 5:10pm
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Annular solar eclipse of Jan. 15, 2010, seen from Qingdao, China. ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Enjoy the sun.  If you live along a narrow band across the southwestern United States, Sunday afternoon will bring the rare treat of an annular solar eclipse — a ring of sunlight as the new moon, passing between Earth and the sun, blocks most, but not all, of the sun’s disc.

Mind you, this is not the kind of eclipse of which you usually see pictures — the moon blocking the sun completely, creating a few moments of near-night in the middle of the day, with only the sun’s ethereal corona visible around the moon’s edges.  The sky will darken a bit, but there will still be a blindingly bright ring (an “annulus” in Latin) of sun, and it’s dangerous to look directly at it.

Still, there will be a striking sight to see, if you look at a heavily-filtered image projected onto a screen through binoculars or a small telescope, or protect your eyes with No. 14 arcwelders glass (not something found at most hardware stores).

The ring will be visible Sunday afternoon in a strip that begins on the California-Oregon coast and stretches southeastward across Reno, Nev., the Grand Canyon, and Albuquerque, N.M., and ends at sunset near Lubbock, Texas.  In the map here, the best viewing is in the yellow band; outside it, people will see a partial eclipse.

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Path of annular eclipse from Northern California to West Texas. Michael Zeiler/Eclipse-Maps.com

The moon’s shadow moves quickly. Times when the moon’s disc will be most centered over the sun’s are as follows:

  • Eureka, Calif.: 6:28 p.m. PDT
  • Reno, Nev.: 6:31 p.m. PDT
  • Albuquerque: 7:36 p.m. MDT (note the time zone change)
  • Lubbock: 8:36 p.m. CDT (another time zone change)

Why this rare annular eclipse?  Because the moon, constant in size as it appears, does not move in a perfect circle around us.  Its orbit is slightly elliptical.  On average, it’s about 239,000 miles away, but at its closest it comes within about 225,000 miles of us.  At its farthest — as it will be Sunday — it’s a little more than 250,000 miles away.  It’s just enough of a difference so that the moon will only cover 88 percent of the sun.

(You may recall the “super moon” of two weeks ago; that night the full moon coincided with the low point of the moon’s orbit, making it look a little more vivid than usual.)

The Interior Department points out that a number of national parks — Redwoods and Lassen in California, Zion in Utah, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona, Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico — will all be at the center of the eclipse path.

But if you’re in the eclipse path, you really just need a place with a good clear view westward.  (Check our weather page for a local forecast, though most of the eclipse zone can expect clear skies, at the moment.)  You may want to go to a local observatory or planetarium, where viewing parties are likely.

And if you don’t feel like investing in welder’s glasses, you may be happy — seriously — with a piece of paper, or leafy trees around you.  Prick a small hole in the paper and it will act as a tiny lens, projecting a miniscule image of the sun onto the pavement.  Likewise, take advantage of the natural pinholes in many leaves.  As the eclipse approaches maximum, look down, not up.  If you’re lucky, you’ll see hundreds of little eclipse images dancing on the ground beneath your feet.

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