Ring of Fire: 2012 annular eclipse (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 16 May 2012

Ring of Fire: 2012 annular eclipse

[Solar annular eclipse of January 15, 2010 in Jinan, Republic of China, by A013231 on Wikimedia Commons.] This Sunday, May 20th, the western half of the US will be treated to an annular solar eclipse.

Annular means that the moon is a bit farther away than usual, so it won't completely cover the sun even if you travel to the eclipse centerline. Why? Well, the moon's orbit around the earth isn't perfectly circular, so sometimes it's farther away, sometimes nearer. Remember all the hype two weeks ago about the "supermoon", where it was unusually close at full moon? The other side of that is that during this eclipse, at new moon, the moon is unusually far away, and therefore a little smaller, not quite big enough to cover the sun.

Since the sun will never be totally covered, make sure you have a safe solar filter for this one -- don't look with your naked eyes! You want a solar filter anyway, if you have any kind of telescope or even binoculars, because of next month's once-in-a-lifetime Venus transit (I'll write about that separately). But if you don't have a solar filter and absolutely can't get one in time, read on -- I'll have some suggestions later even for people without any sort of optical aid.

But first, the path of the eclipse. Here in the bay area, we're just a bit south of the southern limit of the annular path, which passes just south of the town of Redway, through Covelo, just south of Willows, then just misses Yuba City and Auburn. If you want to be closer to the centerline, go camping at Lassen National Park or Lake Shasta, or head to Reno or Tahoe If you're inclined to travel, NASA has a great interactive 2012 eclipse map you can use to check out possible locations.

Even back in the bay area, we still get a darn good dinner show. The partial eclipse starts at 5:17 pm PDT, with maximum eclipse at 6:33. The sun will be 18 degrees above the horizon at that point, and 89% eclipsed. Compare that with 97% for a site right on the centerline -- remember, since this is an annular eclipse, no place sees 100% coverage. The partial eclipse ends at 7:40 -- still well before sunset, which isn't until 8:11.

Photographers, if you want a shot of an annular eclipse as the sun sets, you'll need to head east, to Albuquerque, NM or Lubbock, TX. A little before sunset, the centerline also crosses near a lot of great vacation spots like Bryce, Zion and Canyon de Chelly.

[eclipse viewed through leaves] I mentioned that even without a solar filter, there are ways of watching the eclipse. The simplest is with a pinhole. You don't need to use an actual pin -- the size and shape of the hole isn't critical, as you can see in this image of the sun through the leaves of a tree during a 2005 eclipse in Malta. If you don't have a leafy tree handy, you can even lace your fingers together and look at the shadow of your hands. This eclipse will be very low in the sky, continuing through sunset, so you may need to project its shadow onto a wall rather than the ground.

If you have some time to prepare, take a piece of cardboard and punch a few holes through it. Try different sizes -- an actual pinhole, a BBQ skewer, a 3-hole punch, maybe even bigger holes up to the size of a penny. You might also try using aluminum foil -- you can get very clean circular holes that way, which might give a crisper image. Here's a good page on eclipse pinhole projection. What works best? I don't remember! It's been a very long time since the last eclipse here! Do the experiment! I know I will be.

[Solar projection with a Dobsonian] If you do have a telescope or binoculars but couldn't get a solar filter in time, don't despair. Instead of looking through the eyepiece, you can project the sun's image onto a white screen or even the ground or a wall. Use a cheap, low-power eyepiece -- any eyepiece you use for solar projection will get very hot, and you don't want to risk ruining a fancy one.

Point the telescope at the sun -- it's easy to tell when it's lined up by watching the shadow of the telescope -- and rotate the eyepiece so that it's aimed at your screen, which can be as simple as a sheet of paper. Be careful where that eyepiece is aimed -- make sure no one can walk through the path or put their hand in the way, and if you have a finderscope, make sure it's covered. This solar projection method works with binoculars too, but you'll want to mount them on a tripod so you don't have to hold them the whole time.

Of course, another great way to watch the eclipse is with your local astronomy club. I expect every club in the bay area -- and there are a lot of them -- will have telescopes out to share the eclipse with the public. So check with your local club -- San Jose Astronomical Association, Peninsula Astronomical Society, San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, San Francisco Amateur Astronomers, or any of the others on the AANC's list of Amateur Astronomy Clubs in Northern California or the SF Chronicle's list of astronomy clubs.

This eclipse should be pretty cool -- and a great chance to test out your solar equipment before next month's Venus transit.

When I went to put the event on my wall calendar last month, I discovered the calendar already had an entry for May 20: it's the start of Bear Awareness Week. So if you head up to Lassen or Shasta to watch the eclipse, be sure to be aware of the bears! (Also, maybe I should get a calendar that's a little more in tune with the sky.)

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[ 20:12 May 16, 2012    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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