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Year-end show has sun, moon and meteors in cosmic cast

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2001


The next few days are enough to make an astronomer's pulse race.

The next few days are enough to make an astronomer's pulse race.

Well, beat just a little faster anyway.

Before week's end, sky watchers can enjoy a meteor shower and a solar eclipse -- as long as they remember not to stare directly at the sun. And before year's end they can witness a lunar eclipse, too.

Viewing prospects vary for each event, however.

First things first.

The Geminid meteor shower is a reliable annual event, though this year the Leonid meteor shower got the lion's share of attention last month as Earth passed through a particularly dense field of comet debris.

Nevertheless, tonight after midnight -- and especially just before dawn Friday -- an observer under a dark sky and with an unobstructed view can hope to see about 60 meteors per hour enter the atmosphere as streaks of light. The Geminids should also be visible one or two nights after the Friday morning peak.

The name Geminids is derived from the constellation Gemini. The Geminids are a good warmup for late Friday afternoon, when the moon will pass in front of the sun and block part of it from our view. About half the sun will appear covered.

Most solar eclipses are not noticed on Earth, said Daryl Schrader, who teaches math and astronomy at St. Petersburg College and writes an astronomy column for the St. Petersburg Times.

And we're not supposed to look anyway, because the sun's rays can damage eyes.

But therein lies a problem, at least for Friday's eclipse. In the eastern half of the United States, the sun will set while still in eclipse, raising the possibility of a beautiful and dangerous event -- half a setting sun sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

"The problem with eclipses is that people get fooled," said Dr. Richard Shugarman, president of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology.

Ultraviolet rays of the sun can damage eyes with no warning or accompanying pain, he said, and people must not stare directly at the sun at any time, eclipsed on not.

The eclipsed sun can be watched if precautions are taken. One traditional if cumbersome method is to project the sun's image onto a piece of white paper.

(To do this, cut a hole in one piece of cardboard and tape foil over the hole. Poke a tiny hole in the foil. During the eclipse, stand with your back to the sun and let sunlight pass through the pinhole and onto a second piece of cardboard.)

Welders' glasses work, too, and astronomy equipment suppliers sell safe glasses.

The eclipse, the first on this continent since Christmas Day last year, begins in the Tampa Bay area at 4:12 p.m. It is an annular eclipse, meaning that the moon's disk appears slightly smaller than that of the sun's, and a ring of light remains visible around the edge.

Ready for a final early morning wake-up in 2001? At 5:29 a.m. on New Year's Eve, a lunar eclipse will be visible for all of North America. During this "penumbral" eclipse, the full moon passes through the outer part of Earth's shadow, known as the penumbra.

"The moon changes color a bit, becoming a shade of deep red," said Paul Spudis of the NASA-funded Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

"It's very pretty, but a bit on the commonplace side," he said.

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