Eclipse Next May 10 Dangerous To Eye

January 01, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Who says there is no drama or danger in backyard astronomy?

The celestial calendar for 1994 features an unusually dangerous eclipse of the sun and a comet set to collide with Jupiter.

On May 10, the moon's shadow will cross the continent in a 140-mile-wide swath from Baja California to Newfoundland.

In Maryland, the eclipse will be partial, with about 80 percent of the sun's face darkened by the moon. However, for people in the path of "totality," it will be seen as an annular, or "ring" eclipse. These occur when the moon on its elliptical orbit is thousands of miles farther from Earth than usual and consequently appears too small to cover the sun's face.

So, instead of a dark disc that would be safe to look at during totality in a true total eclipse, this eclipse will leave a brilliant "annulus," or ring of direct sunlight.

The ring can cause permanent eye damage. Millions of #i Americans may be tempted to look with the naked eye.

Don't try it.

"There is no safe time to watch," said Jim O'Leary, of the Maryland Science Center's Davis Planetarium.

In less than a second, you could suffer burns and permanent scarring of the macula -- the part of the retina that sees detail.

"It's the portion of the eye that helps you to read, recognize a face or drive a car," said Dr. Morton F. Goldberg, director of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Advisories will be published on how to view the eclipse safely, but Dr. Goldberg believes it's too easy to get it wrong. "There's nothing we can do once the tissue is burned. The best way to look at the eclipse is to watch it on TV," he said.

During a solar eclipse in 1970, when the moon's shadow moved up the coasts of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, at least 145 people suffered permanent eye damage. Forty percent thought they had used adequate protection, according to the Society for the Prevention of Blindness.

Worse, many U.S. cities lie in or near the path of totality for the May 10 eclipse. It will sweep over El Paso, Texas; Springfield, Ill.; Toledo, Ohio,; Erie, Pa.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and northern New England before crossing the Atlantic toward Morocco. Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Toronto will be just a short drive away.

The Maryland Science Center is planning a safe-viewing event at the Inner Harbor.

"While an annular solar eclipse does not offer the scientific or aesthetic rewards of a genuine total eclipse, it can nevertheless be exciting and well worth traveling a moderate distance to see," said Herman Heyn, Baltimore's "street corner astronomer."

The next total eclipse over the continental United States will be on Aug. 21, 2017.

Here are some other 1994 astronomical highlights to clip and save:

JANUARY: Earth is at its closest (perihelion) to the sun (91.4 million miles), at 1 a.m. tomorrow. But that won't add much warmth.

The Quadrantid meteor shower could deliver 85 meteors an hour Monday between sunset and moonrise at 10:30 p.m.

If you're an early riser, watch for Jupiter close to the last-quarter moon before dawn Thursday. If not, the slender crescent moon at sunset on Jan. 12 should be a pretty sight. The yellowish "star" just south of the waxing moon on the evening of Jan. 14 is Saturn.

FEBRUARY: In the glow of dusk 45 minutes after sunset on Feb. 4, try to spot tiny Mercury, the first planet from the sun. It's a twinkling reddish star about 10 degrees -- the width of your outstretched fist -- above the southwest horizon. You may also spot it quite close to Saturn around Feb. 1, or just below and to the left of the crescent moon on Feb. 11. Binoculars will help.

MARCH: If you're up before dawn after March 10, you can spot Mercury, Mars and Saturn bunched together low in the eastern sky. Reddish Mars and yellowish Saturn will be closest on March 14. The Roman gods of war and agriculture confer; what could it mean? Food fight?

At sunset on March 12, catch the "youngest" moon of the year, barely 16 hours out of its dark "new" stage. A delicate sliver in the west, it is paired beautifully with Venus. Spring will arrive at 3:28 p.m. EST on March 20.

APRIL: The prettiest sight this month will be Venus, alongside the very young crescent moon in the west after sunset on April 12. If you're in Greenland, watch the moon pass in front of Venus in what astronomers call an occultation.

On April 25, look for the full moon just 3 degrees -- three pinky widths -- from Jupiter at midnight. The moon is also at its closest (perigee), so beware of high tides.

Jupiter rises at sunset on April 29 for its closest approach to Earth -- 415 million miles. With sharp eyes, good binoculars and a steady hand, you may spot as many as four of Jupiter's 16 moons -- pinpoints on either side of the bright planet.

MAY: After the annular eclipse on May 10, the next best bet is a partial lunar eclipse starting on May 24. The moon will enter the darkest part of Earth's shadow at 10:37 p.m. EDT, and leave it at 12:23 a.m. At its maximum, about 25 percent of the moon's disc will be darkened.

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