This is the Griffith Observatory Sky Report for the week ending Wednesday, May 23, 2012. Here is what’s happening in the skies of Southern California:
New moon this week brings a solar eclipse that will be visible from most of North America on the afternoon of Sunday, May 20. Los Angeles will experience a partial eclipse lasting from 5:24 p.m. to 7:42 p.m. Maximum eclipse will occur at 6:38 p.m., with the moon covering 86 percent of the sun’s diameter and 79 percent of its area, leaving a only narrow crescent of bright sunlight. The eclipse will be deep enough to make the afternoon unusually gloomy. The eclipse ends only minutes before sunset.
Because the sun can damage your eyes if viewed improperly, you must use eye protection in order to observe the eclipse. A simple eclipse viewer can be made by looking at an image formed on a piece of paper held in the shadow of another paper in which a tiny pinhole has been punched-a method called pinhole projection. The only safe way to directly view the eclipse is through a solar filter, which not only dims the sun in visible light by a factor of 100,000, but also blocks invisible ultraviolet and infrared radiation. The Stellar Emporium, at Griffith Observatory, carries two types of filters for safe eclipse viewing which will be useful also for next month’s transit of the sun by Venus. Filters for telescopes or cameras must completely cover the instrument before the light goes into it, and are only available through astronomical equipment specialty stores.
Griffith Observatory will be open on the day of the eclipse and will provide public viewing of the eclipse through safely filtered solar telescopes and binoculars. Solar viewers and solar glasses are on sale at the Stellar Emporium. Please note the public is not permitted to bring telescopes onto the grounds of Griffith Observatory. Visitors should expect unusually heavy traffic (due to the eclipse and a major all-day event at the Greek Theater) that will make parking very difficult. If you plan to watch the eclipse at Griffith Observatory, plan to arrive well before the eclipse begins, and consider using the weekend public transit Dash bus that travels to the Observatory from the Vermont/Sunset Red Line station.
There is more information about the eclipse and Venus transit events on the Observatory’s home page.
The moon is at apogee, the farthest point in its orbit from the earth, on the day before the eclipse. At eclipse time the moon will appear smaller than the disk of the sun, so even from within central shadow of the moon, the eclipse will not be total, but annular–a ring (or annulus) of blinding sunlight will briefly be visible around the moon. The zone from where the annular eclipse occurs, starts in China, Taiwan, and Japan on the morning of the 21st before crossing the Pacific Ocean and the International Date Line. The annular-eclipse zone is two hundred miles wide when it reaches the California/Oregon coast on the afternoon of the 20th, and travels southeast over parts of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico before reaching Texas at sunset. North America, from Canada to the extreme northwest portion of Mexico will see a partial eclipse. Only the states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Atlantic coast of Canada miss out entirely on the eclipse. The next solar eclipse visible from Los Angeles and much of the same area will occur on October 23, 2014.
The crescent moon is visible in the east, before sunrise, until Saturday morning, May 19. After new moon and the eclipse on the 20th, the waxing moon will make its appearance below Venus on Monday evening, and will be to the left of brilliant planet Venus on Tuesday.
Venus looks lower in the west-northwest sky after sunset as it approaches its June 5 solar conjunction and transit. The planet shows a narrow crescent phase through telescopes and steadily held binoculars.
Orange Mars gleams from the middle of Leo the Lion, and is found high in the south when the sky grows dark. Golden planet Saturn is high in the southeast at nightfall. The planet and its rings are currently one of the objects featured through Griffith Observatory’s public telescopes.
The commercial phase of space exploration is expected to take an important step early on Saturday morning, May 19. If all goes according to schedule, a Falcon 9 rocket and reusable cargo capsule called Dragon, both made by Hawthorne’s Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX), will to test cargo delivery to the International Space Station. The launch, at 1:55 a.m., will be carried live on the Internet by NASA TV, as well as the websites of SpaceX and Spacefilght Now. These sources will provide live updates about the mission, and will announce any re-scheduling in case the launch is delayed. Opportunities to see both the International Space Station and possibly Dragon can be found on www.heavens-above.com.
Check our website for information about free public viewing of the sun and nighttime celestial objects at Griffith Observatory through our telescopes.
From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook, and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.