Solar eclipse draws hundreds to Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center

on May 21, 2012

Chabot Space and Science Center, America’s largest public telescope facility, was the vantage point of choice for viewing the annular solar eclipse in Oakland this weekend, as more than 450 astronomy enthusiasts and families thronged the hilltop observatory to see what astronomers say is the first in a “triple play” of spectacular celestial events this summer.

The annular eclipse drew hundreds of people from across the Bay Area.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon’s orbit is at its furthest point from the Earth, also known as the apogee, placing it closer to the sun and preventing it from totally blocking the sun as in the case of a total eclipse.

“It is quite rare to have [celestial events] so close to each other in time. It’s going to be a triple-play,” said Chabot astronomer Jonathan Braidman. “There will also be a lunar eclipse on June 4 and the ‘transit of Venus’ occurs on June 5.” A transit occurs when a planet crosses the sun’s path along our line of sight.

Braidman, who teaches astronomy, said the center had sold out on the 450 tickets made available for the Sunday’s eclipse viewing, as families from all over the Bay Area attended the event.

More than an hour before the onset of the eclipse, dozens of people began arriving with all sorts of improvisations for viewing the sun. Welding glass filters and sunglasses were converted into viewing devices, and pinhole telescopes were the tool of choice for many. Chabot’s viewing party gave the public access to the facility’s three large telescopes, nicknamed “Nellie,” “Rachel” and “Leah.” There were at least five other telescopes set up outside the observatory for public use, allowing people to look at sunspots and solar flares.

Inside the observatory, a giant projection of the sun was displayed on a plasma screen, allowing families to pose for pictures against the red giant and to look inside sunspots, which appeared as gaping voids on the sun’s surface.

Celeste Burrows, a Chabot employee, was among the members of staff and volunteers on hand to answer questions from the public. “Astronomy connects us in human history. It goes far back,” Burrows said. “There are things my grandmother didn’t know that we now know and we continue to build on the knowledge gathered over time.”

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon's orbit is at its furthest from the earth.

Kids cheered and counted down to the annular eclipse at 6:32, as the moon began to slide closer to the center of the sun, creating a glowing C-shaped figure at the edges, surrounded by a radiant halo and casting a dim shadow over the hills.

Krishna Latha and her husband brought their 5-year-old daughter Veena to Chabot from San Jose and shared a live video feed of the event with their relatives in India and New York. “There are three people watching right now. We are sharing this with our in-laws,” Latha said as she recorded her daughter observing sunspots on a projection of the sun displayed in the public viewing area.

Carly Drummond, an amateur astro-photographer, travelled from Nebraska for the event, and was able to couple her camera with one of the giant telescopes set up outside for public viewing. “It’s great to interact with astronomers here and use some of their equipment,” Drummond said.

“This is quite unusual. We will not see another annular eclipse in northern California until 2023,” said Dr. Terry Galloway, a chemical engineer and astronomy enthusiast who is one of the founders of Chabot Space and Science Center. He was also on hand to take questions from spectators. One question Galloway had to answer more than once from curious parents and their children moments before the eclipse was, “Where is the moon?”

Five-year-old Jesse spins the globe as Celeste Burrows looks on at Chabot

“The moon is dark. We cannot see it because it is too close to the sun,” Galloway said, as the moon’s shadow began to arc into the giant orb displayed on a sun spotter solar telescope that soon became a favorite with the public.

The annular eclipse only becomes visible when the moon covers more than 90 percent of the sun, blocking its rays. Until then, the moon remains invisible to the naked eye due to the brightness of the sun.

Galloway has been volunteering at Chabot since 1969, and he observed the 1994 eclipse at Chabot’s old location, which was not accessible to students because the observatory was located on an earthquake fault zone. The new center was opened in 2000, and has received students since then.

“We could not receive students at the old location, so we decided to relocate and now we have hosted 85,000 kids and 5,000 teachers at the center,” said Galloway.

The next eclipse in northern California will be a total eclipse on August 21, 2017, with the next annular eclipse occurring in 2023.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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