May 27, 2020

Partial eclipse rare Christmas treat Moon blots out half of sun; UM astronomer happy to be in audience

HAMPDEN – A Christmas Day eclipse that came and went with little fanfare found University of Maine Planetarium director Alan Davenport jazzed up all the same.

“You rarely get one object passing in front of another,” said Davenport as he sat at his kitchen table Monday, wearing the parka he had donned earlier to watch the partial solar eclipse from his back yard.

“The mechanics of space is such a wonder … the way the planets are positioned … their majesty,” he marveled.

The last solar eclipse on Christmas took place in 1954. The next one isn’t scheduled until 2307.

As his wife, Beth, prepared Christmas dinner, Davenport ruminated about the lack of attention given to this, the last solar eclipse of the second millennium.

“It’s a shame so few people were aware of it,” said Davenport, who had been trying since October to get the word out.

“There are so many distractions, so many more exciting things to think about – the holiday is much more immediate and personal and important to people,” he said.

“I think it’s an indication that people are becoming less aware of the environment and a little more focused inwardly.”

Although a late-morning snow shower initially threatened to ruin Davenport’s stargazing plans, the sky cleared an hour later. And with the frigid weather keeping the clouds away, the eclipse was clearly visible when it peaked at around 1 p.m.

The family gathered excitedly in back of their trim ranch-style house in Hampden, armed with a number of devices, the better to witness the phenomenon.

As Alan Davenport fiddled with his telescope, his son helped a visitor peer through binoculars equipped with protective coverings. As it turns out, the cardboard glasses – their lenses also covered with a protective filter – that Beth handed out worked best.

What a sight. With the moon blotting out a large chunk of the sun, only a bright crescent-shaped spot of light was visible in the pale sky.

“This is neat!” Beth Davenport said.

Later, after the crazy cold drove everyone inside, Alan Davenport pointed out that events like this drive home the beauty and uniqueness of the solar system and make the study of astronomy especially rewarding.

“Astronomy is such a remote science, you can’t handle things,” he said. “But this is when it stops being ‘just looking,’ this is what makes it more tangible.”

Davenport said he and his university colleagues tried to figure out why the eclipse hadn’t led to dire predictions about the end of the world.

“My take is that people got burned-out on this last year,” he said. “In so many ways people are just totally inured now.”

If the eclipse had occurred last year, the hype would have been huge, Davenport said. “It would have been one more bit of fuel for the fatalists.”

When the family turned to watch the television news out of Washington, a photograph of the eclipse wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the sight from the Davenports’ back yard.

In fact, Maine had one of the best views, according to Davenport, who said we had seen just under 50 percent of the sun covered.

The view from Baffin Island, a remote spot of land in northeastern Canada, would have been better still, he said. From that vantage point, the moon would have blocked out more than half of the sun.

Later, another look at the eclipse showed the moon covering only a small chunk of the sun. The eclipse was moving westerly, Davenport said.

By the time the eclipse reached Hawaii, the Earth would have turned and the phenomenon would no longer be visible.

Each year, at least two solar eclipses occur somewhere on the planet, even though people can’t always see them, according to Davenport.

“Timing is everything,” he said.

The next UM Planetarium show will feature the Magical Millennium Tour at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The one-hour family program will include a story about children who learn how to measure time. Tickets are $3 and $4 and may be purchased at the door.

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