For sheer grandeur, few sights can beat a West Texas sunset. On May 20, though, the moon will heighten the drama by blocking most of the sun from view, leaving a brilliant ring of fire to drop below the western horizon.
Known as an annular solar eclipse, the phenomenon occurs when the moon passes directly between Earth and the sun and creates a “ring” of sun around the moon. “It’s a little bit strange,” says Tom Heisey, president of the South Plains Astronomy Club in Lubbock. “The moon is farther away from Earth, so it doesn’t completely cover the sun like it does during a total eclipse.”
Nearly everyone in Texas (and in most of the United States) can see a partial eclipse that day, with the sun looking like a phase of the moon. However, the “annular” portion of the eclipse will be limited to a narrow path from northern California to the Texas Panhandle and a small portion of the Permian Basin. It’s the first annular eclipse visible from the United States since 1994. “This doesn’t happen very often, so if you have a chance to see it, do it,” says Mike Jacquez, president of the West Texas Astronomers club in Midland.
Skywatchers can watch the eclipse safely through special telescopes set up on the grounds of Midland ’s Marian Blakemore Planetarium. The telescopes will be equipped with safety filters and members of the West Texas Astronomers club will explain what’s happening. Viewers will be able to see not just the eclipse but activity on the sun itself, such as eruptions of hot gas known as prominences, and dark sunspots indicating intense magnetic activity.
In Midland, the eclipse begins at 7:33 p.m., when the moon first touches the solar disk. At 8:36, the moon will be fully immersed in the sun, beginning the annular portion of the eclipse, which ends when the sun sets soon thereafter.
Lubbock is near the center of the eclipse path, providing a slightly longer view—four minutes, 16 seconds of annularity. The South Plains Astronomy Club will host an eclipse-watching party at Lubbock Lake Landmark, also with properly equipped telescopes. You don’t need a telescope to view the eclipse, though—just a clear, flat, western horizon and protection from the sun’s brilliance, which can cause eye damage even during an eclipse. Experts recommend a pair of inexpensive eclipse glasses, which are available through websites and astronomy magazines.
Regardless of where and how you view it, the annular eclipse is sure to add a grand twist to your sky-watching adventures—and to a spectacular West Texas sunset.