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It's Eclipse Time

May 2012 Partial Solar Eclipse Suszter Balázs

It's been many years since a solar eclipse of any kind swept across the mainland United States, but on May 20 an annular and partial solar eclipse will be visible for millions west of the Appalachian Mountains.

An annular eclipse is one in which the moon passes in front of the sun but cannot block it completely because it is near apogee, or its farthest point in its orbit from Earth. Therefore the moon appears a bit smaller in the sky and a ring of sunlight still seeps out from around the edges of the moon. Annular and partial eclipses are not safe to view without proper equipment, such as a solar filter, #14 welder's goggles, or a pinhole projection.

The path of the annular eclipse is a narrow one that begins in South China, sweeps across southern Japan before crossing the northern Pacific and landing in the United States near the Oregon/California border. The path continues southeasterly, passing over Lake Tahoe, a number of national parks including Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon, and through Albuquerque before ending just east of Lubbock, Texas.

In Reno, the partial phase that leads up to the annular eclipse begins at 5:15 p.m., with the annular phase lasting from 6:28 to 6:32 p.m., and the partial phase ending at 7:37 p.m. In Albuquerque, the partial eclipse begins at 6:28, the annular lasts from 7:33 to 7:38, and the entire show wraps up by 8:36 p.m.

For those outside this narrow path, a partial eclipse will be seen. How much of the sun is covered depends on how close you are to the track. Also, as you move farther east, the sun will be setting during the eclipse. For example, in Chicago the partial eclipse will begin at 7:22 p.m. with the moon covering the maximum amount of the Sun, near 70 percent, at 8:20 p.m. However, sunset in Chicago on May 20 is at 8:08 p.m.

The eclipse isn't the only event in May. A meteor shower known as the Eta Aquarids peaks the weekend of May 4. Look toward the constellation Aquarius after midnight to see up to 10 meteors an hour. The event will be partly spoiled by a bright moon, however, as the full moon occurs the next night, May 5. This Cinco de Mayo Moon will be the closest full moon of the year, as it occurs during perigee, when the moon is closest to Earth.

Venus is still stunningly bright in the west, drawing attention to it by those who may not otherwise be stargazers. On May 6 to the 8th, Venus will skim past the bright star El Nath in Taurus. A thin crescent moon pairs with Venus after sunset on May 22.

Reddish Mars, in the southern part of the sky but high off the horizon, has been hanging near Regulus in the constellation Leo. On May 27, catch the moon by Regulus, and on the 28th it will have moved on to Mars. The moon visits one last planet before the end of the month, pairing up with the star Spica in Virgo with Saturn just above on May 31.

Photo: Suszter Balázs

HS_KellyWhittKelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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