It Just May Be a Heavenly Sunset

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Southern California should have an extraordinary sunset Saturday because the moon will pass directly in front of the sun just as old Sol drops over the horizon.

This will be the second solar eclipse in this region in six months, but it will be quite different from the partial eclipse seen here July 11, which was a total eclipse over Hawaii and Baja California. The moon will not quite cover the sun, leaving a thin ring of light around the sun in what is called an annular eclipse.

Astronomers at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles have dubbed it the "ring of fire eclipse."

If the weather cooperates--and as of Wednesday, there was some doubt about that--the view could be enchanting because it will combine a solar eclipse with all the colors produced by a sunset. A few clouds low on the horizon, however, could block out the view entirely.

"It's going to range from not seeing anything to seeing something that is extraordinarily beautiful," said John E. Mosley, program supervisor at Griffith Observatory.

The best places in Orange County to see it are along the coast south of Laguna Beach and on Santiago Peak in Cleveland National Forest, Mosley and other astronomers said. For most parts of the coast between Laguna and Seal Beach, the view will be obstructed by Santa Catalina Island.

Jeff Sloan, a Costa Mesa engineer and eclipse buff, has spent the past three weeks touring the county with compass and map book in hand to plot the best vantage point. He plans to watch from the San Clemente hills.

If there's no fog or rain, the view could be "very striking," said Sloan, who has journeyed to Java, Kenya and Baja California to watch eclipses. "And if it's very clear, there's a chance you could see the green flash as the sun goes below the horizon."

Sloan and other amateur astronomers mentioned other places too, among them the Costa Mesa bluffs, the Top of the World neighborhood in Laguna Beach, and most west-facing bluffs at least 1,000 feet above sea level. The views from some of the high-rises in Newport Center will also be good, they said.

Although Santiago Peak will offer a prime viewing spot, that choice is only for the hardy. The 15-mile road to the peak is but one lane and winding, and forest rangers--who expressed concern that eclipse chasers will overburden the narrow road--warned that no one without a four-wheel drive vehicle should try it. If you do want to try, they advise, start early and bring warm clothes, drinking water and toilet paper.

Because the sun will be very low on the horizon, and thus filtered by the Earth's atmosphere, it is possible to "glance" safely at the eclipse without protective eyeglasses, Mosley said, but "I'm not recommending that." The problem is that people tend to stare at an eclipse, not glance at it, and prolonged exposure could damage the eyes.

And because it is so low on the horizon, usual eclipse filters such as welder's glasses will not work. The atmosphere works as a filter, and another dark filter would eliminate the view entirely, Mosley said. Further, welder's glasses would absorb the orange rays of sunlight seen at sunset, so it would not be possible to see the sun at all.

The observatory has stockpiled orange filters that will protect the eyes yet allow enough light to pass through so that the eclipse can be seen. The filters will be on sale for $5 at the observatory.

Homemade filters are not recommended, Mosley said, because "you never know what kind of light might get through." The atmosphere on the horizon will absorb the ultraviolet radiation that can injure the eyes during an eclipse, but infrared rays will still get through, and these can cause serious damage to eyesight.

Orange County residents have been swarming to local instrument shops over the past three weeks to buy solar filters for their telescopes and "eclipse shades" to cover their eyes.

Karl Morison, a vice president of the Scope City chain, said Tuesday that the Costa Mesa store was sold out of all solar filters priced between $40 and $120 and out of all its $3 eclipse shades. He said, however, that he expects to have a new shipment of eclipse shades by Friday.

A solar eclipse occurs somewhere over Earth about once a year, but most eclipses are partial because the moon passes in front of only part of the sun. Sometimes, the moon covers the entire sun, producing a total eclipse.

The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it is also about 400 times farther away, so the two bodies appear as about the same size when viewed from Earth.

The moon's orbit around the Earth is not perfectly circular, and neither is the Earth's orbit about the sun. So sometimes the moon is not quite as large in the sky as the sun, and even if it passes directly in front of it, the moon's image is too small to cause a total eclipse.

That produces an eclipse that is annular--that is, ring-like. On Saturday, the moon will cover about 82% of the sun.

An annular eclipse generally is not as spectacular as a total eclipse because even a small part of the sun produces enough light to keep the sky from turning black.

The moon will begin to pass in front of the sun at 3:33 p.m., marking the beginning of the partial phase of the eclipse. Times will vary by a minute or so, depending on location, but the annular phase will start at 4:50.

Annularity will last five minutes, but the sun will set during that phase so it will not be visible for the entire period.

The annular phase will be visible from Malibu to Ensenada, Mexico, and from the mountains that form the eastern rim of the Los Angeles Basin. Viewers will need to have an unobstructed view of the Pacific to see the sun as it drops below the horizon.

Griffith Observatory expects to have a couple of dozen telescopes set up, but such large crowds are expected that visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars. The filters provided by the observatory will work on binoculars and also on small telescopes.

Because large crowds are expected, the road to the observatory will be closed. Shuttle buses will run throughout the day, beginning at 10:30 a.m., between the observatory and lower parking lots. The observatory will offer three programs on the eclipse--at noon, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Burning Ring of Fire

Southern California will be treated to its second solar eclipse in six months Saturday, when the sun slides down behind the moon just before sunset. In this eclipse, called an annular eclipse, the moon will cover the center of the sun, creating a "ring of fire" on the horizon.

Annular Eclipse

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, blocking the sun partially or completely. During an annular eclipse, the moon is centered within the sun.

Phases of the Eclipse

At 3:34 p.m., the moon will begin climbing up through the bottom of the sun. The ring phase, when the moon is silhouetted within the sun, begins at 4:50 p.m. Sunset occurs minutes later.

Orange County Eclipse Watching

Barring bad weather, Santa Catalina Island will pose the biggest obstacle to viewing in the county. The island blocks views of the sunset from Seal Beach to South Laguna. Bluffs and high points in South County offer the best vantage point over the island and longer viewing of the ring phase. The best places include:

* San Clemente hills, residential or backcountry area

* San Onofre State Beach* San Clemente Beach or Pier

* Beach at Sand Creek County Park

* Bluffs at Ritz-Carlton Hotel (Limited public access. No free parking.)

Other locations:

* West-facing bluffs in Dana Point

* High-rises in Newport Beach's Fashion Island area

* Bluffs at west edge of Costa Mesa

* Elsewhere about 1,000 feet above sea level--for instances, hills in and around Laguna Beach, including Top of the World neighborhood

Eclipse Shades

Eye protection is necessary to watch the eclipse, but Mylar glasses used for the last eclipse will not work well in the minutes before sunset. Some locations have new viewer "cards" designed for this eclipse. Call for availability:

Oceanview Instruments

2523 W. Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach

(714) 646-3275

Star Quest

370 S. Tustin Ave., Orange

(714) 633-8505

Scope City

3033 S. Bristol, Costa Mesa

(714) 957-6900

Bay Liquor

1780 Pacific Coast Highway, Seal Beach

(310) 430-9660

Dana Point Wine and Spirits

34293 Pacific Coast Highway

(714) 496-3083

Main Beach Sunwear

276 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach494-6666

The Arches Liquor Store

3334 W. Pacific Coast Highway, Newport Beach

(714) 646-6878

Watching From the Sea

Unobstructed views can be seen by watching the eclipse from Catalina Island or from a boat at sea, if the weather is clear. Several companies are offering excursions:

* Bongo's Sportfishing Charters: (714) 673-2810

* Dana Wharf Sportfishing: (714) 496-5794

* Davey's Locker Sportfishing: (714) 673-1434

* Newport Landing Sportfishing: (714) 675-0550

* Spike Africa Sailing Charters: (714) 642-9988

* Balboa Pavilion: (714) 673-5245

(Catalina Flyer departs for Catalina Island on a daily basis)

Sources: Griffith Observatory; amateur astronomer Jeff Sloan; OCC professor John Sanford; Thousand Oaks Optical, Creamola Enterprises and individual businesses.

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