Ring of fire eclipse on May 20

By Phil Plait | May 17, 2012 10:49 am

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!

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.


Related Posts:

- INSANELY awesome solar eclipse picture
- When the Earth photobombs the Sun
- Moon bites multicolor Sun… from space!
- Last week’s solar eclipse tripled by Hinode
- ANOTHER insanely awesome shot of the solar eclipse?!
- The July eclipse, from 12,000 meters up

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Top Post

Comments (45)

  1. joeshmoe554

    I’ve already got my super special solar eclipse glasses and I’ll definitely be watching the eclipse. I’ve seen a few lunar eclipses, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see a solar eclipse before. I’ve thought about taking pictures of it, but I’m a little worried about frying my camera. I have a UV filter for my lens, is that enough or do you need something more specialized?

  2. Tometheus

    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.

    How is this unusual? I thought annular eclipses outnumbered total eclipses by a slight margin. Looking at GSFC’s table for 2011 – 2020, there are 7 annulars and 6 totals.

    *You may have to Google Cache the GSFC page as it seems to have gone down.

  3. James

    He’s right, don’t look at the sun. I have melty spots on my eyes from looking at an eclipse as a kid. 30 years so far of looking through dark blobs is not worth the 10 seconds of awesome.

  4. I remember watching a not-quite-total eclipse (I believe it was >90%) as a kid in the late 1960′s, through our telescope. Of course, we had a special “solar filter” attachment. (The only other thing you could see through that filter was the filament of a light bulb.) I’ve still never seen a total solar eclipse myself. [Clickety click... March 7, 1970 from NYC.]

    (for those on the extreme east coast, the Sun sets before the eclipse starts for that location)

    Who can I speak to about that? Seems like someone could move the eclipse up a few hours. :-)

  5. Garrett

    Fellow CO resident here. Any idea where one might be able to buy those glasses that allow you to look at the sun during an eclipse?

    It’s a little late to order them online, so I’m wondering what local stores might have some.

  6. Arek W.

    Thanks for link about how to safely view eclipses (and I suppose also Venus transit).

    But I’d like to ask a question (to anyone?) – I simply have to be sure.

    From a few sites about safe sun viewing I learned about how to safely view sun with your own eyes. But I’d like to take a photo (preferably with 12x optical zoom).

    Will it be safe for camera (35mm equiv) to use for example wielding glass 14? (safe for eyes)
    I suppose the answer may be yes, but as I said – I have to be sure.

    Thanks for considering my question,
    Arek Wittbrodt.

    PS.
    From the link you provided (San Francisco’s Exploratorium) I found this site:
    http://www.mreclipse.com/Special/filters.html
    It says (table 2), that wielding glasses filters out UV pretty well (10^-5) byt IR not so well (10^-3).

  7. 707

    I’m planning to watch the eclipse as the sun sinks over the ocean here in North California. The only problem is fog. Here’s to clear skies on Sunday!

  8. the Moon will be at apogee

    Which we shall refer to as a “submoon.”

  9. JK

    I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire –
    I went down, down, down
    And the flames went higher,
    And it burns, burn, burns,
    The ring of fir, the ring of fire.

    Johnny Cash

  10. kat wagner

    JoeShmoe – what kind of camera are you using? I shoot into the sun all the time because I love backlit stuff and the star effect I get from stopping the lens down but I never STARE at the sun and I don’t let my camera stare either. A UV filter doesn’t do anything xcept cut down on haze. You can look at my flickr page if you want to: http://www.flickr.com/blueglacier and see the shots I have in the set called “skyward” and the snowshoeing one where the sun is the star. Heh heh!

    We had a total solar eclipse back in 1979 in Northern Idaho, at 8a.m., but of course it was pouring down rain and we couldn’t see anything xcept dark.

  11. Cynthia

    Ok Mr. Plait, I dont know military time so if you could be so kind as to tell me the Actual regular time that would be great!

  12. Great post; ran some simulations to create some unique data such as possibilities to see the ISS transit during the partial phases, views from various satellites, weather circumstances, unusual projects, and interesting factoids on this Sunday’s eclipse;

    http://astroguyz.com/2012/05/14/astroevent-a-pacific-spanning-annular-eclipse/

    Thanks,
    Dave Dickinson

  13. j

    subtract 12 from times greater than 12….that’s the time in the p.m.
    “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).”

    The eclipse begins at 8:56 p.m. UTC (4:56 p.m. Eastern US time) on May 20, and ends at 02:49 a.m UTC May 21 (10:49 p.m. on May 20 Eastern time).

  14. Alex

    You know about the mass viewing at Folsom Field, right? https://www.facebook.com/events/226112040838250/

  15. Cynthia, it will be 4:56PM-10:49PM Eastern. Now is that Daylight or Standard?

  16. XMark

    Does that map mean you’ll only be able to see the eclipse from within the blue lines? Or will I be able to see it up in Vancouver?

  17. Chris And Bernie

    So it only takes ~2 weeks for the moon to go from Perigee to Apogee? That’s pretty cool. Earth takes ~6 months, but we also have more ‘ground’ to cover…wow…Earth is truckin’ it around the sun.

  18. Steve Metzler

    That’s a really cool map from AstroGuys. Unfortunately, it forecasts that we souls in western Europe will see nothing. Nada. Zilch :-(

  19. #17 Chris and Bernie:
    The Moon takes 27.5 days to orbit the Earth – from which we get the word “month”. So half of that is the time between perigee and apogee – obviously.

  20. #2 Tometheus:
    You beat me to it! Yes, this is, in fact, “your usual event”, as annular eclipses do indeed occur slightly more frequently than total ones.

  21. Pete Jackson

    While it is not safe ever to look directly at the Sun (except in total eclipse, of course), dimming the Sun’s output by over 90% should make it easy to see Venus, roughly 15 degrees east of the Sun, and a huge skinny crescent as it approaches inferior conjunction and transit on June 5. We’ll be in Florida, so will miss the whole thing. I’ve seen 5 total eclipses of the Sun but never an annular eclipse. I know, just a plane ride away, but the bank account is empty…

  22. Jay

    Safe to put welders glass in front of binoculars
    ?

  23. Musical Lottie

    Dammit, literally one minute before sunset so we shall miss the entire even in the UK.

    Still, if I’ve interpreted the Wikipedia solar eclipse templates correctly, maybe we’ll be able to see the solar eclipse on 3rd November 2013. *IF* it’s not cloudy.

  24. Katherine

    #5 Garret:
    If you are around Boulder, I saw that they had eclipse glasses for sale at Fiske Planetarium on the Univeristy of Colorado campus.

  25. carbonUnit

    Ken B: I wonder if that partial eclipse in the late 60′s is the one I remember seeing as a kid in Ohio. We viewed it by aiming the eyepiece of our 4″ reflector at a movie screen. Made a great projection.

    I’m so looking forward to the US coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 2017, whose path of totality will be in driving range for me. The trick will not be to pick a place to observe as much as to have several places in mind and be prepared to drive to a place along the path with minimal chance of clouds.

  26. Jon Hanford

    For those people unable to view the eclipse from our area (like me on the East Coast), Sky & Tel has a page with links to several live webcasts of the event (including a attempt by Panasonic to view the event from Mt Fuji!). Here’s a link to the page: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/home/See-the-Annular-Solar-Eclipse-Online-151887305.html

    Does anyone know of others planning to provide online coverage besides those at the S&T link?

  27. JB of Brisbane

    I see it’s not gonna make dat left toyn at Albukoykie… ;-)

  28. Kathy A.

    @Garrett, go to your local welding supply store (or if you’re in a rural area, the farm & ranch store) and ask for #13 or #14 welder’s glass. I just bought some last week and it cost all of $1.50.

    There’s some controversy over whether you can stack lower numbers to come up with glass dark enough. But you should be able to find what you need in the first couple of places you hit.

  29. CrisA

    I’m still trying to decide where I’m going to view it. I’m in Las Vegas, so a bit too far south for the full effect, but now I have to decide exactly where I’m trying to! The problem will just be trying to find a spot where the mountains in the West aren’t too high. Maybe I’ll drive up to Great Basin. Hmm.

  30. Arek W.

    @kat wagner (#10)
    I’m not sure you are talking to me, but since only I asked that question…
    I’m using Lumix DMC-FZ8. Maybe it’s not very good camera, but good enough for me.

    I’v seen such photos earlier and I know people are shooting sun without any filters, but once my brother directed unintentionally that camera toward the sun (for about 1s or something like that) and since then it has some problems with colors – that’s why I’m worried about this.

    Anyway, thanks for answer.

    PS. Nice B&W photos.

  31. KAE

    Read something on CNN about the eclipse. The article itself was okay, but it was the headline that made me laugh: “Weekend solar eclipse to project ‘ring of fire’ ”
    You’d almost think fireproof clothing would be needed to view this eclipse. ;)

    http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/16/tech/solar-eclipse/index.html

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Joeshmoe554 (1) said:

    I’ve already got my super special solar eclipse glasses and I’ll definitely be watching the eclipse. I’ve seen a few lunar eclipses, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see a solar eclipse before. I’ve thought about taking pictures of it, but I’m a little worried about frying my camera. I have a UV filter for my lens, is that enough or do you need something more specialized?

    I’m not certain, but my guess would be : It depends.

    If you use a pinhole camera to project an image of the sun, and then use your camera to take photos of the sun’s projected image, you won’t need any specialist gear.

    If your camera can handle lots and lots of light (e.g. if it has an ISO50 setting, can stop down to f22 or smaller and can take really short exposures), then you might be able to point the camera at the sun during the time when the sun’s disc is mostly obscured by the moon. But looking through the viewfinder might still not be a good idea.

    Failing that, you might need some serious filters (a single ND4 would not cut the mustard and a UV filter certainly won’t suffice). How many filters can you stack on your lens?

    I am, of course, assuming that you would use a biggish lens and zoom in so the sun fills a large proportion of the field of view. If you use a wide-angle lens, then it’s much less of an issue. I am also assuming that you don’t want the sun’s image to be overexposed. The kind of photography discussed in #10 would always have the sun itself overexposed.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    Jay (23) said:

    Safe to put welders glass in front of binoculars
    ?

    No. It would only take the tiniest flaw in the welder’s glass to let in enough light to damage your retina. It ain’t worth the risk, IMO.

    Instead, use your bins to project an image of the sun, and look at that instead.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    @ Neil Haggath (20) and Tometheus (2) -
    Surely there are more than just the two types of eclipse?

    I thought we most commonly got partial eclipses, where the geometry means that Earth, moon and sun do not fall on a straight line, so no viewer on Earth’s surface gets to see either a total or an annular.

    Is it, or not really?

  35. Arek W.

    Just for record.
    I just realized that I totally missed Joeshmoe’s comment (#1) ! :/
    Forget my earlier comment.

  36. kat wagner

    Nigel @34. No it doesn’t overexpose. I shoot with a wide angle mostly, and if it’s not cloudy, I’ll do that Sunday.

  37. Bramblyspam

    Just got hotel reservations! The wife and I will be driving from Portland (which will get an 81% eclipse but we want the full thing) to Shasta Lake in California. Driving down today (Saturday), staying by Shasta Lake two nights. We checked weather reports, of course – the California coast is due to be cloudy while Redding area is sunny, so we planned accordingly.

    This will be my first solar eclipse, my wife saw a partial one as a kid in the late 60′s – probably the same one others recall seeing.

  38. T-Sun

    The start time according to NASA’s table for Albuquerque, NM eclipse starts at 00:28 UTC
    Link:
    http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/OHtables/OH2012-Tab03.pdf

    According to your timing in the main article, the eclipse will last for 5 hours 53 minutes (20:56 to 02:49).

    Did I miss something?

    May be it is a good thing to be prepared early, rather than late. Four hours waiting may be too long a wait for my young grandkids…

  39. Gary Miles

    Phil, looking forward to solar eclipse. On a different subject was wondering if you had any commnet on recent NASA Report: NASA Survey Counts Potentially Hazardous Asteroids from JPL?

  40. Nigel Depledge

    Katwagner (39) siad:

    Nigel @34. No it doesn’t overexpose. I shoot with a wide angle mostly, and if it’s not cloudy, I’ll do that Sunday.

    Eh? You mean the sun’s disc itself is not over-exposed? Does that mean you see actual sunspots on it and everything? But does it not also mean that the rest of your shot is a bit dark?

  41. #36 Nigel:
    You are correct; partial eclipses are indeed the commonest kind. But my comment was referring specifically to “central” eclipses, i.e. I said that annular ones are slightly more common than total, not that they are the commonest kind of all.
    Sorry for the ambiguity.

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