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Solar Show

FOR THE RECORD: This story incorrectly reported Sunday that the duration of the May 20 solar eclipse will be longer in Albuquerque than anywhere else on Earth. The duration here is among the longest of any place on Earth, but Albuquerque is the most popular location for eclipse chasers because it has a favorable climate, with few clouds at that time of year, and interstate highways to allow eclipse chasers to easily move about to dodge any clouds that might be in the sky.

Michael Zeiler spread out the world maps, old and new, across a table in his Santa Fe-area office.

Each looked like a world map from its day – some as old as the 1700s, some modern. All were distinguished by sweeping curved arcs tracing the path of eclipses as the moon cast its shadow across Earth.

Zeiler, a cartographer by trade, an eclipse-chaser by passion, has collected gems of maps made over the centuries. In recent years, he has started making his own.

Watching safely
Never look at the sun directly, during an eclipse or at any other time. It can damage your eyes. Recommended techniques to watch include:
• No. 14 welder’s glass.
• Specially designed eclipse-watching glasses. They’re available on line at astronomerswithoutborders.org. Regular sunglasses are insufficient.
• Use binoculars or a camera to focus the sun’s light on a piece of white paper. Don’t look through the binoculars or the camera.
• Making a pinhole in a piece of paper or foil to focus the sun’s light on a piece of white paper also works. Don’t look at the sun through the pinhole.
Source: Michael Zeiler

The real passion, though, is the eclipse itself, as the moon slips before the sun, creating a light show of great beauty before snuffing it out.

“It’s the most amazing thing you can see with your eyes,” Zeiler said.

Usually, Zeiler has to travel to see it. “I will go to any eclipse that is reasonably accessible through international airline flights,” he said. On May 20, the eclipse will come to him.

Zeiler’s good fortune, living in the path of a solar eclipse, will be shared by the rest of us. Albuquerque and central New Mexico lie smack in the middle of the path as the moon passes between sun and Earth. At the peak of the eclipse – 7:33 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time – Bernalillo County’s South Valley will essentially be the best place on Earth to watch the show, Zeiler said.

Eclipses come in two flavors – lunar, in which Earth’s shadow darkens the moon, and solar, in which the moon blocks our view of the sun. Both kinds are relatively rare. There are two of each in 2012, with the second solar eclipse in November, mostly over the South Pacific.

Lunar eclipses seem more common, because they can be seen over a larger area.

For this May’s eclipse, the area of maximum darkness will be visible on a path some 150 miles wide stretching from eastern Asia across the Pacific Ocean and into the western United States. Seen from above, it would look like the moon’s round shadow is racing across the surface of Earth.

May’s event will be what astronomers call an “annular eclipse.” Viewed from the bullseye, the moon will look slightly smaller than the sun, blocking out all but a tiny ring of solar fire around the moon’s outer edge. Albuquerque is ground zero for eclipse chasers because the period of near-total shadow here, more than four minutes, will be longer than anywhere else on Earth.

The last time an eclipse was visible from New Mexico was a partial eclipse, with the moon blotting out part of the sun in April 2005.

A few thousand of Zeiler’s closest friends, the tight-knit global eclipse-chasing community, are likely to converge on New Mexico as well, he said. These are the sort of people willing to travel all over the globe, including chartering a plane or cruise ship if the eclipse happens over the ocean, to see the celestial show.

Zeiler, who works for the computer mapping firm Esri from his home in the Las Campanas subdivsion north of Santa Fe, got hooked on eclipses when he and his father traveled to the tip of Baja California to see his first one in 1991.

As the moon blotted out the sun, he experienced for the first time the strange shimmering colors left behind, and the rare view of the sun’s corona – the bright glowing atmosphere of the sun that extends beyond its central sphere, but which is normally never visible because the light of the sun itself drowns it out.

“The corona,” he said, “is like a living entity.”

It was not until a few years ago that Zeiler combined his passion for eclipses with his profession of mapmaking. While preparing for a 2009 Pacific Ocean cruise to see an eclipse, he used his skills to make a wall map to take on the ship with him, showing the path of the eclipse. It hung on the wall of the ocean liner, and other eclipse-chasing friends began asking for copies.

That led to a more elaborate post-trip version of the map. He now sells wall-size eclipse map posters through his website, eclipse-maps.com, which also includes an archive of a thousand historic eclipse maps.

The maps are functional, providing the information needed to know where to go to see the eclipse. But Zeiler has turned them into works of art, suitable for hanging on a wall.

Zeiler traces his maps’ history to Tycho Brahe, the 16th-century astronomer who collected what was then the most detailed data on the sky, and Johannes Kepler, who took Brahe’s data and used it to develop what has become our modern understanding of the orbits of the planets around the sun, and our moon around Earth.

So accurate were the resulting theories that, by the 1800s, scientists could precisely predict the path of the moon as its orbit occasionally blocked out the sun, making increasingly accurate maps showing the path of the shadow as it traced its narrow path across Earth.

Zeiler has become a student of the old maps, collecting them when he can afford to and using them for his modern efforts. “I actually learn from these old maps when I make new maps,” he said.

When Zeiler’s eclipse-chasing friends converge on Albuquerque in May, many have chosen the crest of the Sandias as the best place for what will be the best eclipse of 2012.

“There are people coming from all over the world,” Zeiler said.

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