Webcasts push solar eclipse to the masses

May 21, 2012 - 5:48 PM
APTOPIX Japan Ring of Fire Eclipse

The moon slides across the sun, showing a blazing halo of light, during an annular eclipse at a waterfront park in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Monday, May 21, 2012. Millions of Asians watched as a rare "ring of fire" eclipse crossed their skies early Monday. The annular eclipse, in which the moon passes in front of the sun leaving only a golden ring around its edges, was visible to wide areas across the continent. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — It was one of the best places in the western United States to watch the annular solar eclipse, and people drove for days just to get to this dusty stretch west of Albuquerque.

Did it matter?

Some say no. The game of chasing celestial spectacles like Sunday's eclipse has changed thanks to live webcasting by observatories around the world and social network sites that are being fueled by grainy smartphone photographs and video clips.

The National Park Service streamed the eclipse live on its website from Petroglyph National Monument, a remote expanse of prairie and long dormant basalt volcanoes that was situated directly in the path of the eclipse.

It was a first for the agency, proving that sharing such an event with the world from such a location was technically possible.

"This was a big step for us," Jeff Olson, an agency spokesman who was on his way back to Washington, D.C., on Monday after watching the event at the monument.

Across town, the University of New Mexico did the same thing. In Japan, Panasonic went live from Mount Fuji.

Millions of people across a narrow strip of eastern Asia and the Western U.S. turned their sights skyward for the annular eclipse, in which the moon passes in front of the sun leaving only a golden ring around its edges.

The rare lunar-solar alignment was visible in Asia early Monday before it moved across the Pacific — and the international dateline — where it was seen in parts of the western United States late Sunday afternoon.

"I always tell people it's like going to a sporting event. It's always better to be at the game but watching it on TV is not so bad," said Patrick Taolucci of Slooh SpaceCamera, which can tap into observatory feeds around the world and stream them online while experts discuss what's happening.

With the location and equipment barrier removed, UNM astronomy professor Richard Rand said this new way of experiencing eclipses and other celestial events can only add to their understanding and result in more interest in science.

Rand received an email from a mother Monday who said she and her daughter were able to watch the university's streaming of the eclipse on their smartphone while driving to a viewing site in New Mexico.

Emails have also been pouring into the National Park Service. More than 17,000 people logged on Sunday, including people who missed out on seeing the ring due to clouds in Colorado and a person who was wheelchair bound and unable to get to any of the viewing parties.

But for some, especially the globe-trotting eclipse groupies, there was nothing like being in Albuquerque.

Alan Macklem made the three-day trip from Manitoba, Canada, with his wife.

"I've started," he said. "It's going to turn into a compulsion and then into a habit and then I won't be able to break it. I'll have to see every eclipse from now on."

So what's the fascination?

Watchers agree there's simply nothing like it and it doesn't really matter whether people are behind a pair of solar glasses or watching it on a smartphone.

"I think it's something that really goes to the inner soul, the guts, the real inside of who we are as human beings," Olson said. "We're drawn to the sun. We're drawn to the stars at night."

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM