Ring of fire: Rare eclipse sparks craze

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Witnessing a total solar eclipse is considered one of the planet’s most spectacular sights, but many who’ve seen both say that a ring-of-fire eclipse is just as dramatic. Hundreds of millions across the world will get a chance to see one on today.

­Both types of eclipses happen when the Moon moves between the Sun and the Earth, blocking out sunlight. A total eclipse occurs when the Moon is close enough to our planet to totally obscure the Sun. Meanwhile a ring-of-fire, or annular eclipse, appears when the Moon is further away and does not prevent all sunlight from getting through.

During an annular eclipse, as the Moon aligns with the Sun, it appears as if there is a black hole in the middle of a burning disc – its name comes from annulus, which means “ring” in Latin.

On average there are about four annular eclipses every five years. But they are always in different places – and there hasn’t been one in the US for 18 years.

This time, the eclipse will start on Sunday night (GMT) in China and Japan, and over the next four hours will travel more than 10,000 km across the Pacific Ocean and onto the United States. But only those lucky enough to be in the 300-kilometer-wide corridor will be able to observe the eclipse.

Easternmost Russia, South Korea, Philippines, Canada and Mexico will only witness a partial eclipse – not a perfect ring.

As for the annulus itself, you really have to get your timing right. While the sky will get darker, the period when the sun neatly outlines the moon only lasts about five minutes at most.

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Weather could spoil view

The US has set up dozens of viewing events in National Parks and observatories across the west of the country.

But Japan has truly exploded in an Eclipse craze.

Mainstream TV shows have spent hours discussing the usually neglected topic of astronomy, while popular science books and amateur telescopes have flown off the shelves. The eclipse will pass Japan early on Monday morning local time. Cable-cars will run early and boats have been rented to get a better view of the rare phenomenon.

But all this is hardly surprising considering one fact: Tokyo has not been exposed to an annular eclipse for 173 years.

Now there is only one thing to wait for – a clear sky.

“Unfortunately this is monsoon season, and the weather prospects are supposed to be poor,” Alan MacRobert, editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, told the news agency AFP.

“China and Japan don’t look to be very lucky for this. It would take quite a stroke of luck to get a clear sky.”

In fact, the last time there was a ring of fire eclipse scheduled for the US West Coast in 1992, the event turned out to be something of a damp squib.

Back then, 15,000 people gathered at the Griffith Observatory in LA only to end up looking at a nondescript cloudy sky, before dispersing meekly.

This time, California will once again be the best place to watch the eclipse, but astronomers at Griffith are warning amateurs to temper their expectations, while hoping the skies will prove kinder this time.#Link

Something strange is about to happen to the shadows beneath your feet.

On Sunday, May 20th, the Moon will pass in front of the sun, transforming sunbeams across the Pacific side of Earth into fat crescents and thin rings of light.1

It’s an annular solar eclipse, in which the Moon will cover as much as 94% of the sun. Hundreds of millions of people will be able to witness the event. The eclipse zone stretches from southeast Asia across the Pacific Ocean to western parts of North America: animated eclipse map.

2Annular Eclipse (shadows, 558px)

Crescent sunbeams dapple the ground beneath a palm tree during an annular eclipse in January 2010. The picture was taken by Stephan Heinsius on the Indian Ocean atoll island of Ellaidhoo, Maldives. [more] [video]

In the United States, the eclipse begins around 5:30 pm PDT. For the next two hours, a Moon-shaped portion of the sun will go into hiding. Greatest coverage occurs around 6:30 pm PDT.

Because some of the sun is always exposed during the eclipse, ambient daylight won’t seem much different than usual. Instead, the event will reveal itself in the shadows. Look on the ground beneath leafy trees  for crescent-shaped sunbeams and rings of light.

2Annular Eclipse (ring of fire, 200px)

A “ring of fire” over China in 2010.

Near the center-line of the eclipse, observers will experience something special: the “ring of fire.” As the Moon crosses the sun dead-center, a circular strip or annulus of sunlight will completely surround the dark lunar disk. Visually, the sun has a big black hole in the middle.

The “path of annularity” where this occurs is only about 200 miles wide, but it stretches almost halfway around the world passing many population centers en route: Tokyo, Japan; Medford, Oregon; Chico, California; Reno, Nevada; Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Lubbock, Texas. In those locations the ring of fire phenomenon will be visible for as much as 4 and a half minutes.

“The ring of sunlight during annularity is blindingly bright,” cautions NASA’s leading eclipse expert Fred Espenak of the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Even though most of the Sun’s disk will be covered, you still need to use a solar filter or some type of projection technique. A #14 welder’s glass is a good choice. There are also many commercially-available solar filters.”

2Annular Eclipse (map, 558px)

The path of annularity cuts across the continental United States near sunset on May 20, 2012. An interactive map is also available: click here. See also the ScienceCast video.

Many astronomy clubs will have solar-filtered telescopes set up for public viewing. Through the eyepiece of such an instrument, you can see the mountainous lunar limb gliding by dark sunspots and fiery prominences. It’s a beautiful sight. Be absolutely sure, however, that any telescope you look through is properly filtered. Magnified sunlight can cause serious eye damage even during an eclipse.

A safe and fun way to observe the eclipse is to use your own body as a solar projector. For example, try criss-crossing your fingers waffle-style. Rays of light beaming through the gaps will have the same shape as the eclipsed sun.

Or just stand under that tree. The sight of a thousand ring-shaped sunbeams swaying back and forth on a grassy lawn or sidewalk is unforgettable.

For more information about the solar eclipse, please view the ScienceCast video Solar Eclipse over the USA.#Link

 

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