Solar eclipse over the USA

January 30, 2012 By Dr. Tony Phillips, Science@NASA
"The ring of fire:" Astrophotographer Dennis L. Mammana photographed this annular eclipse behind palm trees in January 1994. Credit: D. L. Mammana.

Mark your calendar.  On Sunday, May 20th, the sun is going to turn into a ring of fire.  It's an annular solar eclipse--the first one in the USA in almost 18 years.

An annular occurs when the Moon passes directly in front of the sun, but the lunar disk is not quite wide enough to cover the entire star.  At maximum, the Moon forms a "black hole" in the center of the sun.

The “path of annularity” is a strip about 300 km wide and thousands of km long.  It stretches from China and Japan, across the Pacific Ocean, to the middle of North America.  In the United States, the afternoon sun will become a luminous ring in places such as Medford, Oregon; Chico, California; Reno, Nevada; St. George, Utah; Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Lubbock, Texas.

Outside of this relatively narrow zone, the eclipse will be partial. Observers almost everywhere west of the Mississippi will see a crescent-shaped sun as the Moon passes by off-center.

"I like to compare different types of eclipses on a scale of 1 to 10 as visual spectacles," says NASA's leading eclipse expert, Fred Espenak of the Goddard Space Flight Center. "If a partial eclipse is a 5 then an annular eclipse is a 9."

This event should not be confused with a .  In a total eclipse, the Moon covers the entire surface of the sun, bringing an eerie twilight to observers in the path of totality and revealing the sun’s ghostly corona.

"On that scale of 1 to 10," he adds, "a total eclipse is 'a million!' It's completely off the charts compared to any other astronomical event." The next total eclipse in the USA is in the year 2017.

The path of annularity cuts across the continental United States at sunset on May 20, 2012. A global map is also available.

Until then, May 20th of this year will have to do.

Annular eclipses have a special charm all their own. During an , sunbeams turn into little rings of light.  The best place to see this is on the sun-dappled ground beneath a leafy tree. Hundreds of circular shadows can be found there.

You can also make a handy solar projector by criss-crossing your fingers waffle-style. Rays of light beaming through the gaps will have the same shape as the eclipsed sun.

Be careful when looking directly at the eclipsed sun, cautions Espenak. "The ring of sunlight during annularity is blindingly bright.  Even though as much as 94% 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."

"One of the unique things about this eclipse for watchers in the USA is that the Sun will still be in deep partial eclipse at sunset, making for some great photographic opportunities," he continues. "In western Texas around Lubbock, the sun actually sets during the annular phase."

A swollen red with a black hole in the middle?  Maybe 9 out of 10 isn’t so bad, after all.

Explore further: Cloud obscures annular eclipse

Related Stories

Cloud obscures annular eclipse

October 3, 2005

Clouds obscured an annular eclipse for most sky-gazers across Europe and Asia Monday as the moon passed in front of the sun.

Southern hemisphere to glimpse year's last solar eclipse

November 24, 2011

The tip of South Africa, Tasmania and most of New Zealand will -- weather permitting -- enjoy a partial eclipse of the Sun on Friday although the handful of hardy scientists in Antarctica will get the best view, according ...

Solar eclipse to be seen on January 4, 2011

December 24, 2010

Some of the world will be able to greet the first part of the new year with a solar eclipse. On the morning of Tuesday, January 4, 2011, an eclipse of the Sun will be widely visible across Europe and as far east as India. ...

Recommended for you

HESS J1943+213 is an extreme blazar, study finds

June 21, 2018

An international group of astronomers have carried out multi-wavelength observations of HESS J1943+213 and found evidence supporting the hypothesis that this gamma-ray source is an extreme blazar. The finding is reported ...

The Rosetta stone of active galactic nuclei deciphered

June 21, 2018

A galaxy with at least one active supermassive black hole – named OJ 287 – has caused many irritations and questions in the past. The emitted radiation of this object spans a wide range – from the radio up to the highest ...

'Red nuggets' are galactic gold for astronomers

June 21, 2018

About a decade ago, astronomers discovered a population of small, but massive galaxies called "red nuggets." A new study using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that black holes have squelched star formation in these ...

8 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Xbw
1 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2012
Damn! It is missing my place by about 250 miles. BAH!
Noumenon
1 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2012
Ya, no luck.
CapitalismPrevails
2 / 5 (4) Jan 30, 2012
I'm missing it by 400 miles. Maybe i will just drive there.
laserfloyd
not rated yet Jan 30, 2012
Looks like I'll be making a trip to TX...
350
not rated yet Jan 30, 2012
If it kept going for 200 miles I'd get to see it. Lame :p
dschlink
not rated yet Jan 30, 2012
My house is in the path for 2017. A total eclipse observable from our hot tub. Might head to Medford for this one, though.
Allex
3 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2012
I wonder what will creationists say about this 'unperfect' solar eclipse.
Xbw
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2012
I wonder what will creationists say about this 'unperfect' solar eclipse.


What does this post have to do with creationism?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.