The ever-identifiable voice of Johnny Cash may not be whistling in the background, but that doesn’t mean East Valley residents and astronomers across the globe won’t be experiencing their own “Ring of Fire” come sunset on Sunday.
Visible in the continental U.S. for the first time in about 20 years, an annular solar eclipse will take place, and also provide people from China to Texas at least a partial look at the event which last crossed by these parts in 1994.
And East Valley residents are invited to view the solar event from the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory located at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, 2757 E. Guadalupe Road. The observatory is set to mark the event in the sky through specialized solar-equipped telescopes.
Beginning at 5:15 p.m. Sunday, participants hosted by observatory officials and the East Valley Astronomy Club will be able to view the annular solar eclipse for free. The event lasts for two hours, with the major portion of the eclipse visible about 6:30 p.m. Sunset is about 7:30 p.m., which is before the event has fully cleared.
An eclipse, the moon passing between the sun and Earth, will cause a large burning sphere to be partially or totally obscured. Because of the position of the Earth and moon, the sun will not be completely covered and a “ring of fire” will appear in a manner that looks somewhat like a silver lining.
“It’s quite a spectacular sight,” said Dave Coshow, general manager of the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory. “It will be like seeing a thin ring of fire in the sky that looks like a little halo. At one point, you’ll see the sun almost completely covered by the moon. It’s like a cloud going in front of the sun. It won’t be nearly as dark as a total eclipse that we see happen about every two years, but it is something that we don’t get to see very often.”
“An annular eclipse is not so much rare as in itself, what is rare is that it’s happening where we are,” Coshow added.
The East Valley Astronomy Club, based in Mesa, has about 200 members, some of whom will be at Sunday’s eclipse, but many of the members are traveling north this weekend to view the eclipse from Page, possibly the best vantage point in the state. The moon viewed from Page will cover about 98 percent of the sun; comparably, East Valley residents will be able to see about 85 percent of the sun covered by the moon, according to Coshow.
The annular eclipse on Sunday will be the first time that the observatory in Gilbert will be host to such an event. The 7-year-old facility didn’t exist when the last annular eclipse could be viewed. The glowing ring is expected to show itself in southwest Oregon, northern California, central Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona and the Texas panhandle.
The high-powered telescope at the Gilbert facility cannot see below about 16 degrees, so a series of smaller hydrogen alpha light solar telescopes will be used, and positioned on the west side of the facility and along the walk area that surrounds the observatory.
The hydrogen alpha light telescopes allow viewers to actually see the surface of the sun and not just a white ball that could be seen through welding glasses.
“We’re going to scrounge up all the telescopes we can,” Coshow said.
About two weeks ago, Valley astronomers reveled in seeing the Super Moon or “Monster Moon,” as the moon was its closest to the Earth.
With an annular eclipse, the moon is the farthest away from the Earth in its orbit.
“If the moon was closer to the earth, we’d get a total eclipse,” Coshow pointed out. “This way, the moon and sun look about the same size. The sun is approximately 93 million miles away and the moon is 240,000 miles away.”
Gazers — no matter where they are viewing the eclipse from — are reminded not to directly look at the eclipsed sun as to avoid serious injuries to one’s eyes. People are urged to wear protective glasses that are specifically designed for solar viewing.
“One thing I tell people who are not familiar with viewing eclipses is please don’t go out and try to use a pair of sunglasses to view it,” Coshow said. “If you look directly at the sun, you could be blind within seconds.”
Glasses for solar viewing are known to be available at Photon Instruments in Mesa and possibly at the Science Center in downtown Phoenix, Coshow said.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity,” said Lisa Hermann, educational coordinator for the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. “I don’t know much about astronomy, but personally, I’m excited.”
The next “Ring of Fire” eclipse will be visible in 2023.