Tonight’s ‘Ring of Fire’ Eclipse –First Since 1994




Tonight's  "time traveling" annular solar eclipse hundreds of miles wide and thousands of miles long, will turn the familiar disk of the sun into a ring of fire for sky-watchers in parts of Asia and the U.S. West. An annular eclipse happens when the moon lines up between Earth and the sun. But in this case, the dark moon's apparent diameter is smaller than the visible disk of the sun, leaving a fieryring—or annulus—of light around the edges. The event is the first of its kind to be visible from the mainland United States since 1994. The region won't see another such eclipse until 2023. 

The annular eclipse starts in China at local sunrise on May 21. The path of the moon's shadow then goes over Japan around 7:35 a.m., local time, and races across the Pacific Ocean. Viewers looking through special solar filters will see a ring of sunlight around the black silhouette of the moon.The eclipse makes landfall in North America in the late afternoon of May 20, starting at the California-Oregon border at 6:26 p.m. PT.

The eclipse then crosses southern Nevada, southern Utah, the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, the lower-left corner of Colorado, and most of New Mexico before ending in the area of Lubbock, Texas, around sunset at 8:36 p.m. CT.

Viewers in a broad swath stretching for thousands of miles across northeastern Asia and the western two-thirds of the U.S. and Canada will instead see a striking partial eclipse.

To view the eclipse safely, experts recommend using either a solar filter in front of a telescope or camera, or using eclipse viewing glasses that sufficiently reduce the sun's brightness and filter out damaging ultraviolet and infrared radiation.

According to the NASA Eclipse website, it is possible to view the sun safely with the naked eye, however, only during the few brief seconds or minutes of a total solar eclipse.

"Partial eclipses, annular eclipses, and the partial phases of total eclipses are never safe to watch without taking special precautions. Even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is obscured during the partial phases of a total eclipse, the remaining photospheric crescent is intensely bright and cannot be viewed safely without eye protection. Do not attempt to observe the partial or annular phases of any eclipse with the naked eye. Failure to use appropriate filtration may result in permanent eye damage or blindness."

The site says that the safest ways to see an eclipse is by projection, "in which a pinhole or small opening is used to cast the image of the sun on a screen placed a half-meter or more beyond the opening. Projected images of the sun may even be seen on the ground in the small openings created by interlacing fingers, or in the dappled sunlight beneath a leafy tree."

NASA also says binoculars may be used to project a magnified image of the sun on a white card, but you "must avoid the temptation of using these instruments for direct viewing."

The site also indicates that the sun can be viewed directly only when using filters specifically designed for this purpose. Such filters usually have a thin layer of aluminum, chromium or silver deposited on their surfaces that attenuates ultraviolet, visible, and infrared energy. "One of the most widely available filters for safe solar viewing is a number 14 welder's glass, available through welding supply outlets."

Another option is aluminized Mylar which can easily be cut with scissors and adapted to any kind of box or viewing device. "No filter is safe to use with any optical device (i.e. – telescope, binoculars, etc.) unless it has been specifically designed for that purpose."

Filters that you want to stay clear of and that NASA considers unsafe include: color film, some non-silver black and white film, medical x-ray films with images on them, smoked glass, photographic neutral density filters and polarizing filters, the site reports.

NASA also warns not to experiment with other filters unless you are certain that they are safe. "Damage to the eyes comes predominantly from invisible infrared wavelengths."Even if the sun appears dark in a filter or if you don't feel any discomfort, does not guarantee that your eyes are safe. Avoid all unnecessary risks." 

"In spite of these precautions, the total phase of an eclipse can and should be viewed without any filters whatsoever. The naked eye view of totality is completely safe and is overwhelmingly awe-inspiring," NASA experts conclude.

Image credit: With thanks to Reuters/China Daily

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