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Hundreds turn out for eclipse

A few hundred amateur astronomers littered the field in front of ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum Sunday evening in Ashland, waiting for the clouds to part and reveal a clear view of the first annular solar eclipse seen in the United States in 18 years.

Visible only to a select strip of U.S. land spreading from Oregon to southwest Texas, the Rogue Valley was one of only a few areas in the country positioned to see the moon as it passed in front of the sun, casting a perfect ring of light at the eclipse's peak.

"Today is a unique opportunity," said John Heatherstone, who came to ScienceWorks to pick up a pair of solar viewing glasses and wait for the eclipse to begin.

The museum gave out 150 pairs of the glasses to eager eclipse chasers, who watched the moon begin to cover the sun's light just after 5 p.m. The viewing party was the culmination of the astronomy-themed "Astro Blast" weekend at the museum, with two days of activities to teach children about the solar system.

Those who weren't lucky enough to score a pair of the glasses Sunday viewed the eclipse by projecting an image of it using pinhole light filters and either a telescope or camera. It also could be visible by looking through rare No. 14 welder's glass.

"This is about my relationship on Earth, with the solar system," said Heatherstone, who has sailed as a hobby since he was a young child.

Heatherstone said his passion for sailing gave him an interest in astronomy because at one time looking to the sky was the only way to gauge direction while traveling at sea.

"It used to be that celestial navigation was the only way to have navigation," said Heatherstone, noting the invention of global-positioning systems.

"Thirty-five years ago, we didn't have that," said Heatherstone. "You wouldn't have known where you were."

Heatherstone and hundreds of others watched as the moon slowly moved across the sun, which emitted light only from an outer ring by 6:30 p.m, and then slowly continued moving.

Rather than a total solar eclipse, in which the moon completely casts over the sun's rays and Earth experiences a brief moment of near-darkness, an annular eclipse happens when the moon is far enough from Earth that a ring of sunlight remains visible to us.

With a slightly elliptical orbit, Sunday was an example of the moon at it's furthest point from Earth, about 250,000 miles away.

"It only lasts about four minutes," said Heatherstone. "It's a rare opportunity."

According to astronomers, the next eclipse — a total solar eclipse — won't occur until August of 2017.

"It's really a historical event," said Amy Maukonen, who brought her three children — Connor, 8, Lexi, 6, and Kaia, 5 — to see the eclipse. "We love science and we love teaching the kids about the world."

The three children quickly passed around a pair of solar glasses, waiting for times when the sun peeked through the clouds to check the progress of the slowly moving moon.

"The sun looked like a little ball," said Lexi, after taking her turn.

"The moon is moving," said Connor.

Maukonen, who majored in science in college said her and her husband are interested in science and believe it's important to share the subject with their children.

"To see the moon pass across the sun," said Maukonen, "It's really, really cool."

Teresa Ristow is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. She can be reached at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.