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Solar eclipse 2012: The best place to view it in California?

The deepest partial solar eclipse in a generation is headed to Southern California this weekend. What's the best way to view it? Where are the best places to go? Check out this Q&A below.

Ringoffire_medQ: What's the best place to view the eclipse in Southern California?

 A: The partial solar eclipse will occur late in the day in Southern California on Sunday, beginning at 5:24 p.m., reaching its maximum coverage at 6:38 p.m., and exiting the sun's path at 7:42 p.m., just 10 minutes before sunset. "That means the sun is fairly low in the northwest, and you want a clear view of the northwest horizon," said Griffith Observatory director Ed Krupp. 

He suggested a place with a clear view of the northwest, with an elevated view and a clear horizon, to see the moon obscure the sun's beams. Griffith Observatory, which is run by the city of Los Angeles, will have extra telescopes and staff on hand to help people view the eclipse for free.   

"They'll be seeing something that is really unusual -- a big bite coming out of the sun. And that's the real charm of this event," Krupp said. 

Q: How big of a bite will the moon's shadow take of the sun?

A: According to the Griffith Observatory, 86% of the sun's diameter will be covered up by the moon. (That statistic is the standard one astronomers like to use; lay people may prefer knowing that 79% of the area of the sun will be covered up.) "It's a pretty deep eclipse here in Los Angeles," Krupp said. 

Q: When was the last time Southern California saw such a deep partial eclipse?

A: The last time we saw such an extensive solar eclipse was in 1992, according to the Griffith Observatory.

The next partial eclipses to hit Southern California will be Oct. 23, 2014, and Aug. 21, 2017, but both of those also won't be as impressive as this weekend's, Krupp said.

Q: Will the sky darken dramatically in Southern California?

A:  "It won't be profound like a total eclipse," said Krupp, where the land becomes remarkably dark. Rather, he said, "it's a much subtler effect — but it is noticeable."  He likened it more to "an unusual change of lighting," vaguely like when a cloud obscures bright sunlight on the ground, but it will feel different, perhaps eerie. 

"While it will not get really dark, people who are attentive notice it will be darker than you would expect for that time of day.... If you're paying attention, you certainly will see something."

Q: Should I look at the sun directly to see the eclipse?

A: No, no, no. That can damage your eyesight. And don't try to make a filter on your own, Krupp said.

  Screen Shot 2012-05-15 at 5.24.58 PMQ: Then how do I view the eclipse?  

A: The simplest way  is to criss-cross your fingers waffle style to the sunlight, which will project the partial eclipse on the ground in front of you, according to a NASA video on Sunday's eclipse.    

You can also get a piece of cardboard, punch a nail through it, and then angle the cardboard to project the sun's light on another piece of cardboard. "You'll see a projected image … when the sun goes into eclipse, you'll see a crescent," Krupp said. The smaller the hole, the sharper image you can get. A more elaborate version can be found here.    

Another easy method: using a hand mirror to reflect the light of the sun onto a wall or some other surface, Krupp said. 

Another idea is to use binoculars to project an image of the sun on a surface, NASA says. Just don't use the binoculars to look at the sun directly!   

Griffith Observatory will have telescopes with specially designed filters for people to watch the eclipse directly. The observatory will also have projection devices for sale and special eclipse-viewing glasses. Regular sunglasses, however, won't protect your eyes.

Also, a No. 14 welder's mask will also work. 

Q: What happens if it's cloudy?

A: That's always a risk in L.A., where a low layer of clouds rushes over the Los Angeles Basin at night during this time of year. Krupp said the marine layer doesn't usually come ashore that early in the evening, but the weather is always a risk. "If we get socked in an opaque marine layer, it's gone," Krupp said. 

For his part, Krupp is headed to the Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico to see the eclipse, which has a better chance of clear skies than the California coast. 

Q: What will people in the direct path of the eclipse see?

Screen Shot 2012-05-15 at 9.18.24 PMA: Those who will be in the direct path of the eclipse will see a special treat — a "ring of fire" eclipse, technically known as an "annular" eclipse. (Annulus means ring in Latin.) In this type of eclipses, the edges of the sun will  remain visible while the moon obscures most of the sunlight.

It's not as spectacular as a total solar eclipse, where there is no ring of fire and so much sunlight is blocked that it creates a mysterious midday twilight.

Q: What places will see the full annular eclipse?

The full annular eclipse will begin around sunrise in southern China; head over Hong Kong and Guangzhou; pass over Taipei, Taiwan; then Tokyo; come close to Alaska's Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Ocean; then enter North American through southern Oregon and northern California, passing through Eureka, Redding, Chico and Lake Tahoe; and then moving through Reno, Nev.; Zion National Park in Utah; the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona; Albuquerque, N.M.; and end near sunset near Lubbock, Texas.

A much wider swath of the world will see a partial eclipse, including eastern China, the Philippines, Korea, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and much of the United States except for the eastern seaboard. 

NASA has produced a list of times of the eclipse in cities in the United States and foreign countries; an interactive Google map also provides times for any point in the world. The times are set to Universal Time, which is seven hours ahead of California time. 

Q: Anything else special about this eclipse?

A: It's the first eclipse of its kind to enter the lower 48 states since 1994. The next one -- a total eclipse -- will reach the U.S. on Aug. 21, 2017, but that one will be farther away from Los Angeles. 

Sunday's eclipse will also be wonderful opportunity for photographers in North America, who can take photos of the moon eating the sun during sunset. 

"A really impressive part of this eclipse is it is low on the horizon -- so very picturesque close to the ground," he said.

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-- Rong-Gong Lin II 

Photo: Ring of fire eclipse in China in 2010. Credit: NASA 

Photo: Criss-crossing your fingers waffle style will project the eclipse on a sidewalk. Credit: NASA  

Photo: The difference between a total and annular eclipse. Credit: NASA 

 
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