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Oakmont students get a glimpse of partial eclipse

Dozens of local students got a glimpse of a cool cosmic event last Thursday, thanks to a visit by an Oakmont parent who is an enthusiastic member of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers.

Mathew Wedel arrived to Oakmont School, where his son London is in 4th grade, about a half-hour before school let out and just as the sun began to be swallowed by shadow.

It was a partial eclipse of the sun, and Mr. Wedel, who is president of the PVAA, wanted to make sure that the kids in Oakmont’s Best After School Learning Program (BLAST) got a good look at a rare event.

If you’re a bit confused as to what constitutes a partial solar eclipse, Mr. Wedel broke it down in layman’s terms. “So the moon came between us and the sun, but did not totally cover the disk of the sun. From the LA area, you could see about a third of the sun covered.”

Mr. Wedel—who is an assistant professor of anatomy at the Western University of Health Sciences when he isn’t sky-gazing—came prepared.

He brought a bunch of eclipse glasses and two telescopes, both outfitted so students could gaze at the sun without damaging their eyes.

One had a commercial solar filter that blocks most sunlight. Another was rigged up with a MacGyver-like device first cobbled together by another amateur astronomer, who was kind enough to post his directions online. It features a funnel and a couple of pipe clamps, which form a “sun funnel,” and a sheet of screen material onto which an image of the eclipsed sun is projected.

“It projects an image, about three or four inches across, of the sun,” Mr. Wedel shared. “It is good enough that we not only could see the eclipse, we could see sunspots.”

You know the saying: “The best things in life are free”

In the case of Mr. Wedel’s presentation, the most popular device he presented was nearly free. Kids were given two note cards, and invited to create a tiny hole in one using a pushpin. That card was held up to a window in the multi-purpose room through which the eclipsing sun was visible. When kids placed the second card beneath it—voila!—they were treated to a view of a small, crescent-shaped sun.

As energetic kids will do, the students began to riff on the project, creating multiple pinholes to peck out smiley faces or spell out words shaped by a passel of crescents.

Mr. Wedel’s son is used to a bit of cosmic commotion. His father woke him up in the middle of the night about three weeks ago to take in a lunar eclipse. Mr. Wedel, who has been a member of PVAA since 2009, comes by his zeal naturally.

“I’ve always loved the night sky,” he said. “I grew up in rural Oklahoma, and we had very dark skies. I remember one time as a kid, there was going to be an eclipse of the moon. The whole family took lawn chairs out to the edge of the property and we watched the moon. It rose full and bright and then earth’s shadow started to pass over it and it dimmed and reddened. It was very moving.”

The next solar eclipse visible from this area won’t take place until August of 2017, but there is another big show in astronomy just wrapping up. You can still head out to a place with dark skies like Baldy and catch the tail end of the annual Orionid meteor shower, which peaked earlier this month. If you go looking for “shooting stars,” don’t bother bringing a telescope, Mr. Wedel advised.

“It’s visible with the naked eye and to try to see it with a telescope is terrible. It will limit your field of view.” 

If you do, however, want a closer look at stars and planets, Mr. Wedel notes that you can “rent” a telescope through a free program, sponsored by the PVAA, at the Claremont Library,

“Each telescope comes with an instruction manual and a little guide to the constellations and a little booklet that talks about what’s up there in the sky that you can look at,” he said.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com