NASA graphic shows the sun at maximum eclipse in the Reno-Tahoe area |

NASA graphic shows the sun at maximum eclipse in the Reno-Tahoe area

by Sally J. Taylor, Tribune staff writer

Sky watchers may not get a glimpse of the Christmas star this holiday weekend but they can enjoy other celestial events.

Chief among them is a partial eclipse of the sun just after sunrise on Christmas morning.

In the Reno/Tahoe area the solar eclipse begins at 7:29 a.m. At its maximum, the moon’s shadow will block less than 25 percent of the sun’s sphere at 8:25 a.m. – just enough to caste a haze on the morning light. By 9:25 a.m., the moon’s shadow clears the sun.

Nowhere in the world will anyone see a 100 percent eclipse, although Santa Claus can catch 70 percent if, on his way home to the North Pole, he lingers in the far northeast of Canada.

Anyone planning to interrupt morning Christmas celebrations to view the astral phenomenon should avoid looking at the sun itself. Permanent eye-damage could result. The sun, even a partly eclipsed sun, hits the retina like sunlight focused through a magnifying glass onto paper. Once the damage is done, it can’t be undone.

Arthur Johnson, director of the Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center at the University of Nevada, Reno recommends a minimum protection of number 14 welders glasses to be safe. Special viewing glasses with protective silver coatings can be purchased through astronomy suppliers, but probably not in time for Monday’s event. Not even multiple layers of sunglasses or film negatives provide enough protection, Johnson said.

Another option is to create a pinhole projector for an indirect view. Instructions on the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Web site, , say to use two thin but stiff pieces of white cardboard. Punch a small clean pinhole in one piece of cardboard and let the sunlight fall through that hole onto the second piece of cardboard. An inverted image of the sun is formed. Keep your back to the sun.

Staff will be available at the planetarium on Christmas morning beginning at 7:15 a.m. to assist the public with safe viewing of the event.

Solar eclipses happen fairly frequently.

“At least two solar eclipses per year happen on the earth,” Johnson said, “however, not every place on the globe.”

A given location experiences some type of eclipse about every two to three years. An eclipse on any given day such as Christmas is very rare.

The last partial December 25 eclipse was seen over Africa in 1954. The last total eclipse on that day happened in 1666 over South America. The next Christmas eclipse will not occur again until 2307 and you’ll have to wait until 2755 to catch a total eclipse on Christmas day.

Monday’s partial eclipse is not the only celestial happening of interest this weekend. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn have all danced brightly in the night sky this month and will continue to star for another couple weeks.

You can see Venus beaming in the western sky soon after dark.

“It’s gorgeous,” Johnson said. “Seen through a telescope it’s a half crescent.”

On Dec. 29, the crescent moon and Venus form a pair before dipping below the horizon.

High in the southeast near the Pleiades star cluster, Jupiter glares overhead with Saturn over the giant planet’s upper right shoulder. Below Jupiter, the distant star Aldebaran twinkles with an orange brilliance. By midnight, the trio can be seen nearly directly overhead.

Mars takes the sky stage for the late-late show. Between 2 a.m. and sunrise, the red planet can be seen in the southeast sky.

Snow enthusiasts may not appreciate the clear skies expected this weekend, but stargazers will. For a close-up view of heavenly bodies, the Fleischmann Planetarium observatory opens on clear evenings each Friday and Saturday from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. The three planets will be the main attraction for the next couple weeks.

For information on the planetarium’s schedule call (775) 784-4812.

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