Ring of fire eclipse on May 20

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May 17 2012 10:49 AM

Ring of fire eclipse on May 20

On Sunday, May 20, the Moon will pass between the Earth and the Sun, creating a solar eclipse.

However, this isn't your usual event: because the Moon will be at apogee (the farthest point in its orbit), it won't completely cover the face of the Sun. Instead of the Sun being totally blocked and the ethereal glow of its corona visible, we'll see an annular eclipse, also called a "Ring of Fire" eclipse. The picture here -- from the October 2005 annular eclipse -- makes it clear why!

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

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The eclipse begins at 20:56 UTC (16:56 Eastern US time) on May 20, and ends at 02:49 UTC May 21 (22:49 on May 20 Eastern time). Folks on the east coast of the US will not see the entire eclipse (for those on the extreme east coast, the Sun sets before the eclipse starts for that location [UPDATE: here's a good map to show you if you can see it or not, from the AstroGuyz site]), whereas people on the west coast will barely see the whole thing. For me, in Boulder, Colorado, the Sun will set during the eclipse, which I actually think is pretty cool. That means it'll sink into the Rocky Mountains with the Moon still partially blocking it, which should make for extraordinary photos!

If you want to see the whole eclipse, the farther west you are the better. The western US and Japan have the longest view, as well as seeing the Sun blocked as much as possible; at the peak, about 94% of the Sun will be blocked by the Moon. Mind you, most people will see this simply as a partial solar eclipse, with the Moon crossing the Sun across a chord. But if you're in a specific narrow path the Moon cuts directly across the Sun, and you may see the Ring of Fire. Check this interactive Google map to see that path. If you are outside the blue lines on that map, you'll see a partial eclipse, but in between them you'll see the annular effect. Cities like Albuquerque and Gallup in New Mexico, Reno in Nevada, and Redding in California may have the best American views.

There are many good sites with details. The NASA eclipse site as usual is the first place you should go, with tons of details. Wikipedia has an excellent article with some good graphics and maps as well.

NOTE: There are lots of great, safe ways to view the eclipse. San Francisco's Exploratorium has a great list. Search Google for "safe eclipse viewing" for more. NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH BINOCULARS OR A TELESCOPE unless you really know what you're doing. Seriously. Even looking at it with your eyes can be dangerous; just wearing sunglasses can actually make it worse. So go to those links to see the best way to do this.

And if you're looking for a place to watch the eclipse in the states, I might suggest trying a national park. The National Park Service has a list of places with great views!

I'm hoping to take some pictures myself and collect photos taken by others as well. Stay tuned!

Image credit: Sancho Panza on Flickr; Google.



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