Covering one heavenly body with another

Posted 10/11/23

Stargazing during the day is something most people are taught not to do, but for some that’s exactly what is in the plans for this Saturday, Oct.14, from just after noon until about 2 p.m. …

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Covering one heavenly body with another


Stargazing during the day is something most people are taught not to do, but for some that’s exactly what is in the plans for this Saturday, Oct.14, from just after noon until about 2 p.m. Those in the know will don special eye protection and prepare to witness an astronomical event known to captivate and darken the day of those in observance.

An eclipse of the sun happens when our planet’s biggest satellite, the moon, moves between the sun and Earth at just the right angle and distance to overlap the star’s light and turn day to night. Without a doubt, hopefully, the sun is much larger than the moon but is also much farther away from the Earth. The layout of the three heavenly bodies makes for the perfect storm of conditions that allow a solar eclipse to be possible.

Not every eclipse is a total eclipse. Depending on the position of the Earth and moon there are two main types of eclipse possible.

“What it depends on is where exactly the moon is with respect to the land,” said Francine Jackson, staff astronomer of the Ladd Observatory at Brown University. “For this one here this week it’s called a path of annularity. You have to be on that specific region, which goes for thousands of miles in length but is only a few miles wide. Next April we’ll have a path of totality where you have to be on that path to see the total eclipse.”

This year’s eclipse, viewable here in the United States, will offer the best view on its path from Eugene, Oregon, to San Antonio, Texas. Jackson, and Jim Hendrickson of the “Sky Scrapers,” a group of amateur astronomers in Rhode Island, will be traveling to New Mexico where this weekend’s eclipse can be viewed best. Due to its dependence on planetary position and alignment, different eclipses have different properties and can completely block the sun or leave a small amount of the star uncovered. This year’s eclipse, when viewed from one of the locations on its direct path, will cover approximately 95% of the star as the moon passes in front of it.

“Rather than the moon covering the entire ball of the sun, the moon is just a little further away [from the Earth], so it’s unable to totally block the sun,” said Francine Jackson, staff astronomer of the LADD Observatory at Brown University. “So, when it gets into the middle of the sun it leaves a circle, or a ring, around the moon called an annulus, which is Latin for ring.”

Those of us here in Rhode Island won’t be lucky enough to witness the full majesty of the eclipse that states like New Mexico will, but that doesn’t mean the event isn’t worth stepping outside your front door. While the thousands-mile-long path of the eclipse will be visible across the United States, Rhode Island, and most of the country lucky enough to glimpse the event from outside its path, will only be getting a small taste of the eclipse.

Those gathering to view the event on Saturday will be able to see about 19% coverage of the sun by the moon. Don’t worry though, we here in the Ocean State can look forward to a more impressive version of the event next April where we will see about 95% coverage of the sun, Jackson said.

“You have to have some kind of protection,” warned Jackson of those hoping to watch the eclipse while it is happening. “The easiest one, of course, is those eclipse glasses, but there are other things you can do. There’s the old ‘putting a box over your head with a pinhole in one end and it projects the sun on the other. Probably one of the better things is to go to places where people are gathering together.”

Even a colander can be used as a means to track the event, Jackson explained with a laugh.

“Turn your back to the sun and put the colander so the light goes through and each individual hole will show the motion of the moon in front of the sun,” she clarified before warning that sunglasses do not make a safe replacement for the specialty viewing glasses available. “Looking at the sun through sunglasses you’re messing up your eyes. The glasses are specifically darkened so that when you put them on all you can see is the sun. When you put them on you can’t see a blessed thing otherwise.”

If you’re looking to watch the eclipse on Saturday you can join one of the viewing parties to be found around the state. Cranston Library is holding viewing parties at the Bain Track on Gansett Avenue complete with free eclipse viewing glasses and an eclipse picnic at their William Hall Branch, 1825 Broad St., with both events beginning at 12:30 p.m.

Jackson also said there will be events held at Brown University, at the center of their campus in Providence, Roger Williams Park Museum, also in Providence, and Seagrave Memorial Observatory, in North Scituate, will all be holding events at the same time.


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