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The Sun will turn into a spectacular ring of fire and light up the sky on May 20th when an annular solar eclipse is visible over the Pacific Ocean, China, southern Japan, and western US.

This type of eclipse – the first one in the US for almost 18 years – occurs when the lunar disk is not quite large enough to fully cover the Sun. At the time of maximum eclipse, the Moon forms a black hole in the centre of the Sun surrounded by a sensational bright ring - the ring of fire.

Annular Eclipse of October 3, 2005 (ESA)

The partial phase of the eclipse begins at 20:56:07 UT with totality beginning at 22:06:17 UT and ending at 01:39:11 UT. At 02:49:21 UT the final act occurs when the partial phase ends. For an observer located in the narrow 237km wide band where the annular phase is visible, the maximum duration is only 5 minutes 46 seconds. This occurs in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. For everyone else, it lasts for a shorter time.

Path of May 20, 2012 Annular Eclipse (Fred Espenak/NASA)

Path of Annular Eclipse over Western US (Fred Espenak/NASA)

When viewing the Sun during annular eclipses and during partial and total eclipses outside the period of totality, to avoid serious eye damage requires special eye protection, or indirect viewing methods. Only use certified solar telescopes, solar filters or eclipse viewers when observing the Sun. Never look at the Sun directly, use regular sunglasses, self-made filters such as smoked glass, compact disks, floppy disks etc as it is extremely dangerous.

The safest method to view the Sun's disk is by the projection. This is achieved by projecting an image of the solar disk onto a white piece of paper or card using a telescope (a small refractor type is ideal) or a pair of binoculars (with one of the lenses covered). Care must be taken to ensure that all other lenses, such as finderscopes, are either covered or removed and that nobody looks directly through the telescope.

A solar eclipse has to be one of the most amazing natural displays that occurs at most a few times each year. You need to be in very specific locations on Earth to observer them, but for the lucky people who can make it the experience is unforgettable.