Solar eclipse projects ‘ring of fire’

Posted at 4:15 PM, May 20, 2012
and last updated 2012-05-20 21:55:34-04

(CNN) — The shadow of the moon started sweeping across the globe from Hong Kong to the Texas Panhandle as a rare annular solar eclipse began Monday morning in Asia.

The sun appeared as a thin ring behind the moon to people in a narrow path along the center of the track, which began in southern China. Heavy clouds obscured the event in Hong Kong, but Tokyo residents could get a spectacular view for about four minutes around 7:32 a.m. Monday (6:32 p.m. ET Sunday).

Across the Pacific Ocean, thousands of people planned viewing parties to watch the event, the first to appear in the United States since 1994.

“I recommend anyone who has the chance to see this, because while they do happen occasionally, it’s a fairly rare event,” said Jeffrey Newmark, a solar physics specialist with NASA. “It’s a neat thing to see.”

After sweeping across the Pacific, the shadow emerged over northern California and southern Oregon. It was then to travel southeast across central Nevada, southern Utah and northern Arizona, and New Mexico. It will pass over Albuquerque, New Mexico, about 7:34 p.m. (9:34 p.m. ET) before petering out east of Lubbock, Texas, according to NASA.

More than 80% of the sun will be blocked out during the apex, Newmark said — but the full effect will be visible only to observers within 200 feet (61 meters) of the track.

“This will cause less change in the daylight than you might think,” said Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. “Moderately thin clouds would dim the sunlight more. And if you’re where the eclipse is only partial, the dimming will be less.”

One of the best views was expected to be in Kanarraville, Utah, a town of about 300. But Bonnie Char, spokeswoman for the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau, said as many as 1,000 people may be in town for the eclipse. The Brian Head Resort in Utah is opening its ski lift so people can watch the eclipse from atop a mountain peak of more than 11,000 feet. For $8, visitors will get a ride up the mountain and solar glasses, Char said.

And instead of football fans, the University of Colorado Boulder’s Folsom Field will be occupied by astronomy enthusiasts on Sunday.

“In order to provide the best viewing angles, attendance for the event is limited to 13,000 inside the stadium,” the university said on its website.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and sun at the farthest point of its orbit, meaning it will block less than the entire sun. That will leave a large, bright ring around it as it passes.

Patrick Wiggins, a NASA ambassador in Salt Lake City, said he always looks forward to seeing people’s reactions.

“You get everything from stoic, staring into the sky … to people breaking down and crying, they’re just so moved,” he said.

The next solar eclipse will be on November 13, and is expected to be visible over northern Australia, according to NASA.

Newmark said people should not peer up at the sky to view the solar event without special viewing equipment. Looking at the sun with the naked eye can cause blindness.

Eclipse glasses, dark welder’s goggles or an astronomer’s filter made for sun viewing are recommended if people want to look skyward.

Another way to view the eclipse is by using binoculars and telescopes to project an image of it on the ground, Newmark said. Point the binoculars or telescopes at the sun — without looking through the lenses — and aim the other end onto a piece of paper or cardboard.

By the CNN Wire Staff.
CNN’s Melissa Gray contributed to this report.
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