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Spectators at MU's observatory watch crescent sun set during solar eclipse

Monday, May 21, 2012 | 9:22 a.m. CDT; updated 8:16 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 21, 2012
The Central Missouri Astronomical Association hosted a public viewing Sunday of the partial solar eclipse at Laws Observatory on the roof of the MU Physics Building.

COLUMBIA — A crowd of several dozen gathered on the rooftop of the MU Physics Building to watch Sunday’s partial eclipse as it peeked through the clouds just before sunset.

Before the eclipse began, families explored the observatory. Children, adults and even a few dogs climbed the curved staircase leading to the 16-inch telescope at Laws Observatory.

Randy Durk of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association streamed a live feed of the eclipse as it passed over Area 51 in Nevada.

Ladders and step-stools stood before telescopes and binoculars equipped with special filters so visitors could view sunspots.

A small, dark disc creeping up on the bottom of the setting sun became visible a few minutes after the eclipse began at 7:25 Sunday evening. On the rooftop, visitors donned solar glasses provided by the astronomical association

During the first phases of the eclipse, special glasses were necessary to see a sliver of the moon as it edged into the bottom of the sun. During the next half hour, the moon’s shadow crept up the sun until it resembled a glowing arch.

This promising start excited some of the observers. Eight-year-old J.C. Berg ran back and forth on the rooftop taking pictures of his first eclipse through the lens of his solar glasses.

“It’s better without the flash,” he said, scanning through his photos.

Just before 8 p.m., a thin line of light violet clouds obscured the eclipsing sun just above the horizon. Some families took the clouds as a sign to leave, but others chose to wait.

The solar eclipse was the first for Raghav Poudyal, who created a time-lapse video of the spectacle. “I went to a NASA conference and that’s what got me excited about astronomy and astrophotography,” Poudyal said.

His patience paid off. A few minutes before sunset, the darkening sun dipped just below the clouds. The moon’s round shadow created an arc-like halo resembling a sideways crescent moon.

As the sun set, only two ends of the crescent-shaped sun shone through the clouds producing two bright dots. Several viewers noted that it looked like there were two suns instead of one.

When the ends of the red-orange arc touched the horizon it was safe to view the eclipse without eye protection. Some observers photographed the sunset with professional cameras and equipments, others with cellphones. Most of the remaining visitors were content to watch the sun sink past the tree-lined horizon of western Columbia.

The crowd trickled off the rooftop. Some stragglers stayed behind to chat or take pictures of the sunset hues. Durk said his goodbyes and left with his dog Charlie, the astronomical association’s unofficial mascot, trailing behind.

After almost everyone had left, organizer Val Germann of the astronomical association packed his telescopes and binoculars. He won’t have to keep his equipment locked up for long. The astronomical association is hosting another viewing at sunset June 5 for the transit of Venus across the sun, an event that won’t happen for another 115 years.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.


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