Atlantic Cities

The Solar Eclipse on Sunday: Will Your City Be Able to See It?

The Solar Eclipse on Sunday: Will Your City Be Able to See It?
Hinode/XRT

A yawning black hole opening up in the dead center of the sun is on the bill for Sunday, May 20... if you're lucky enough to live where you can see it.

The stunning solar eclipse will develop in the United States around 5:30 p.m., Pacific Daylight Time. The eclipse is flying in from China and will disappear over Texas as the sun sets. And yes, I know all this is going down when Road Trip: Beer Pong is on TBS, but this astral orb-party really is worth uncovering the shades for a few minutes (but don't look directly at it, dingus: take these precautions to avoid "eye suicide").

Sunday's is an annular eclipse, meaning that the moon is crossing directly between us and the flaming gas ball lighting up our solar system. Because the moon is farther away from the earth than it is at other times, it will only partly cover the star's white-hot discus, kind of like putting a dime over a nickel. That positioning will cause a blazing, dream-disturbing ring of fire to briefly appear in the sky. Here's a similar annular eclipse from last January as observed by the Hinode satellite:

The near-complete obliteration of the sun will have a strange effect on objects down below. Glaring like the universe's angriest wedding band, the sun will cast out alien-looking shadows that appear hollow. You can see what this looks like in this photo by Stephan Heinsius that NASA featured for its Astronomy Picture of the Day:

The setting is the Maldives on Jan. 15, 2010, during the longest annular solar eclipse (more than 10 minutes!) for the next thousand years. The gaps in the palm-tree leaves making the shadows were small enough to act like pinhole cameras, projecting hundreds of small images of the eclipsed sun onto the ground. You can create this effect yourself this weekend by crossing your fingers in a grid to throw shadows on the pavement.

But all this is meaningless if you're not living in the right city. The path of the annular eclipse takes it on a swoop about 200 miles wide that completely misses the U.S. East Coast and the Midwest. Residents of Asia, northern California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas should get a good scorching from the flaming ring, though, as the eclipse races forward at a speed of 1.1 kilometers per second. This map from NASA should tell you whether your city is lucky enough to be in this monster's way:

Folks in places like Tokyo, Reno, and Albuquerque stand to get as long as 4.5 minutes in the fiery ring's company. Everybody else will either see a partial eclipse or will just have to wait for the next one to roll around, on Nov. 13, though only Aussies really get to viddy that one. If you'd like to poke around in the wealth of information online about Sunday's event, these are good places to begin:

Google map of the eclipse's path

A Javascript app for predicting the eclipse's movements

A detailed essay about what cities and towns the eclipse will visit, and an animation showing the shadow's creep

A short primer on how the sun and moon align to give us eclipses

Good eclipsin'!

Top photo of an annular solar eclipse on Jan. 4, 2011, taken by the Hinode satellite.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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