All eyes on Dec 26 'ring of fire' in the sky

Organisations and schools across Singapore are preparing to witness a rare and spectacular sight tomorrow that has been dubbed the "greatest astronomical event in Singapore".

For the first time in two decades, a rare "ring of fire" known as an annular solar eclipse will be visible in the sky on Boxing Day.

The phenomenon occurs when the Moon covers the Sun's centre, but is too far away from Earth to entirely blot out the Sun.

At National Junior College (NJC), 56 student volunteers attended a three-hour training session on Dec 16 to prepare to host an eclipse viewing session from 9am to 4pm tomorrow for nearly 700 people, including students from other schools and members of the public.

All the student volunteers are from the basketball club, and many at the training session were exposed to the world of astronomy for the first time.

When asked why she volunteered, Senior High 1 student Amanda Han, 17, said it was a good opportunity to learn more about how solar eclipses occur.

Not only that, she added, it would also be a very meaningful experience since the next annular solar eclipse would take place in 2063.

Junior High 3 student Matthew Biju, 15, said the training session deepened his interest in astronomy. "There is a lot more to it than you see, and makes you realise that there is still a lot more out there for you to explore," he said.

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During the session, the students learnt more about the Sun and were taught how to safely set up and operate various solar telescopes to ensure a safe solar observation experience for visitors.

Viewing the Sun, even during an eclipse, without any form of protection can cause permanent eye injury, including blindness.

The effects of any injury will be felt only several hours later as the retina - the light sensitive layer of tissue in the eye - has no pain receptors.

The students had the opportunity to make solar filters for the telescopes to be used on the day itself.

Solar filters not only ensure safety while one observes the eclipse but also provide a selective view of the Sun, by enabling only photons from selected regions of the Sun to be collected, recorded and analysed.

Gideon Chew, 6, viewing the solar eclipse through the telescope at the Science Centre. PHOTO: The Straits Times

"Our mission is to make astronomy available for the masses, and to make it fun, affordable and safe," said NJC vice-principal for administration Alfred Tan.

A solar astronomer with 10 years of experience, he conducted the three-hour training session.

Over the past year, NJC has also conducted four workshops on how to operate a solar telescope and make solar observations for primary and secondary school students.

Mr Tan views the Boxing Day programme as a good opportunity to expose more students, teachers and members of the public to astronomy, and hopes that this will spark greater interest in the subject.

Separately, for the past few months, PAssion WaVe @ Jurong Lake Gardens (PAWV @ JLG) and The Astronomical Society of Singapore (Tasos) have been collaborating to host a viewing party for the annular solar eclipse at Jurong Lake Gardens from 11am to 4pm.

"We (Tasos) are anxiously waiting for the annular eclipse event as it is rare to have an eclipse path passing over the southern half of our island," said Mr Albert Ho, president of The Astronomical Society of Singapore.

On Sunday, Tasos spent more than four hours at Jurong Lake Gardens setting up telescopes and binoculars fitted with solar filters for the viewing of the eclipse.

Over the past year, the organisation has also conducted talks on the phenomenon, reaching out to more than a hundred people in total.

The talks touched on not only what and how a solar eclipse occurs, but what people can expect at the viewing party.

PAWV had planned to hold a "make your own solar viewer" workshop last Friday at Jurong Lake Gardens, but this had to be cancelled because of bad weather. A workshop is now planned for the big day itself.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.