UVic astronomy professor Russ Robb uses a piece of No. 14 welder’s glass to safely look at the sun. Next to him is a Questar telescope. Both instruments will be available to the public at the university on Sunday

Dark side of the sun

Skywatchers set for partial solar eclipse on Sunday

When Johnny Cash sang about a ring of fire, the musical legend was commenting on love, but skywatchers know the fiery image takes on a more astronomical definition this weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, the moon will come between the Earth and the sun during an annular solar eclipse. Because the moon will be at its furthest point away from the planet this weekend and will appear relatively small in the sky – as opposed to the “supermoon” observed two weeks ago when the moon was at its closest point to Earth – it will obscure three-quarters of the sun and earthlings will observe a band of sunlight not covered by the moon.

“We’ll see this little ring of fire around the moon,” said University of Victoria astronomy professor Russ Robb. “It’ll be pretty neat – almost as good as a total eclipse.”

The partial eclipse will first be visible in China before the moon’s shadow transits westward across the Pacific, ending above Reno, Nev. And while there’s no guarantee the eclipse will even be noticeable to those on the street, local astronomers will be glued to their telescopes.

“It always seems like (eclipses) are in Antarctica or Australia or the Arctic, and never where we are,” Robb said.

For those who would like to be behind a telescope on Sunday, Robb warns to take precautions and equip lenses with adequate solar filters to ensure safe viewing of the sun’s surface. Observers can also project an image of the sun onto a steel disc. Robb will be on hand at the University of Victoria where the public is invited to use equipment, free of charge, during the eclipse.

“Victoria is a real hotbed for astronomy from the most amateur backyard stargazer, to the national centre that works with the Hubble (telescope),” said Sherry Buttnor, second vice-president of the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. “There’s a little bit for just about everyone.”

Buttnor, who has been hooked on astronomy for 30 years since first training a hobby telescope on Jupiter as a teen, suffered permanent vision loss after viewing the sun with a substandard filter.

The Victoria branch of the astronomical society will host free public viewings of the eclipse in Saanich, Oak Bay and downtown Victoria.

Australia is in line to experience the next total eclipse of the sun on Nov. 13 of this year. Greater Victoria will wait until Aug. 17, 2017 to fall under the shadow of the moon during a total solar eclipse.

But astronomers and hobbyists in the area don’t have to wait another five years for the next celestial event. On June 5 Venus will travel across the sun, appearing as a small dot moving left to right in the foreground. The transit of Venus won’t happen again until 2117.

“Everybody’s going to be talking about it,” Robb said.

Look up, way up

Sunday, May 20

-5:01 p.m. Moon begins to cover the sun

-6:16 p.m. Maximum 80 per cent of sun covered

-7:25 p.m. Moon moves past the sun

-The Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada hosts free public viewings with telescopes at Cattle Point in Oak Bay, Mount Tolmie in Saanich and the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria during the eclipse. Contact Sherry Buttnor for more information at 250-474-0554 or see victoria.rasc.ca.

-University of Victoria astronomy instructor Russ Robb will also lead a free public viewing on the roof of the university’s science building, the Bob Wright Centre, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. To access the fifth floor, use the main lobby elevator on the east side.

nnorth@saanichnews.com