One. More. Month: Our Guide to the Total Solar Eclipse

Totality
Totality! An incredible moment from the March 29th, 2006 total solar eclipse. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer/Amazing Sky Photography

Have you heard?

I remember, getting into astronomy as a kid back in the 1970s, building a pinhole projector in a shoe box and watching the partial solar eclipse of February 26th, 1979 from our living room in northern Maine. I had no Learjet, no magic carpet to whisk me off to that thin thread of a path of totality way out west along the Pacific coast. As I settled for the 66% partial solar eclipse, I remember news reports stating that a total solar eclipse won’t cross the United States again until… August 21st, 2017.

That date is almost upon us now, only one month from this coming Friday.

An animation of the August 21st eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/AT Sinclair

This total solar eclipse is one for the ages, THE big ticket event for 2017. Umbraphiles (those who chase eclipses) have been planning for this one for decades, and it’s already hard to find a room along the path. Fear not, as you only need to be within striking distance the day of the eclipse to reach totality, though expect the roads to be congested that Monday morn.

The eclipse is indeed the first time totality touches the contiguous (“lower 48”) United States since 1979, and the first total solar eclipse to cross the United States since almost a century ago on June 8th 1918. A total solar eclipse did cross Hawaii on July 11th, 1991.

total solar eclipse
The path of the August 21st eclipse over the U.S. Credit: Michael Zeiler/Eclipse-Maps.

Partial phases for the eclipse begin at 15:47 Universal Time (UT) and span 5 hours and 18 minutes until 21:04 UT. The partial aspect of the eclipse touches all continents except Antarctica and Australia. The 115 kilometer wide shadow of Earth’s moon (known as the umbra) first makes landfall over the Oregon coast at 17:16 UT /10:16 Pacific Daylight Saving time (PDT) and races eastward at 3,900 kilometers per second. The shadow touches 14 states, just briefly nicking Montana and Iowa. Maximum totality of 2 minutes, 40 seconds occurs near Carbondale, Illinois.

Seen a partial solar eclipse before and wonder what the big deal is? You really need to get to the path of totality for the full eclipse experience. Millions live in the path of the August 21st eclipse, and millions more within an easy day drive. We witnessed the May 10th, 1994 annular eclipse from the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, and can attest that 1% of the Sun at midday is still pretty darned bright.

A partial eclipse rising over the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Action really gets interesting moments before totality sweeps over the landscape. Be sure to keep an eye out for shadow bands flitting across the ground, an effect notoriously hard to photograph. It’s safe to drop those glasses moments before totality, when you’ll see those final rays of sunlight streaming through the valleys along the limb of the Moon, creating what’s known as Baily’s Beads or the Diamond Ring Effect. You’re now in the realm of the shadow of the Moon, an ethereal shadow world turned on its head. I dare you to blink. Looking sunward, you’ll see the pearly corona of the Sun, a white halo about as bright as a Full Moon spied only during totality.

Think about it: you knew this moment was coming, perhaps you’d been planning for it for years… but would you think as an average citizen thousands or millions of years ago if you were suddenly confronted with such as strange sky?

And all too soon, it’s over.

Be sure to keep an eye out for planets and bright stars during the eclipse. Totality is a late morning affair out west, and an early afternoon event for the US East Coast. All naked eye planets except Saturn are above the horizon during totality, covering a span of about 80 degrees from Jupiter to Venus. Look just one degree from the eclipsed Sun and you might just spy the star Regulus occulted by the Moon shortly after the eclipse.

The orientation of the planets and bright stars during totality. Credit: Stellarium.

Perhaps you’re planning on aiming a battery of cameras skyward during the eclipse, or maybe, you’re simply planning on simply enjoying the moment, then photographing the next one. The Eclipse MegaMovie project is planning on capturing the scene down the eclipse path. NASA will also be flying overhead with converted WB-57F aircraft, looking to capture high definition video in the visible and infrared wavelengths during the eclipse.

Preparing for the eclipse. Credit: Dave Dickinson

You need to take the same safety precautions observing the partial phases of the eclipse as you would during ordinary solar observing. Use only a filtered telescope designed to look at the Sun, or solar eclipse glasses with an ISO 12312-2 rating. Make sure that filter fits snugly over the aperture of the telescope and cannot be removed by curious prying hands or high winds, and that all finder-scopes are removed, stowed and/or covered. Also, don’t try and use one of those old screw-on eyepiece solar filters that came with old department store 60mm refractors, as they can heat up and crack. Likewise, be careful when projecting the Sun through a telescope onto a piece of paper, as it can heat up and damage the optics.

If you don’t think the danger is real, read this amazing recent interview with an optometrist on Space.com, where he states you can actually see the crescent Sun burned into the backs of patient’s eyes who stared too long at a partial solar eclipse (!) It’s a permanent souvenir you don’t want to have. Don’t be like 18th century psychologist Gustav Fechner who blinded himself staring at the Sun, mesmerized by the glare of lingering afterimages.

Seen on the streets of Paducah, Kentucky… a harbinger of things to come? Credit: Dave Dickinson

 

And though we can predict eclipses centuries out, there’s one thing we won’t know eclipse day: what the weather plans on doing. Best bets are for clear skies out west, though you only need a gap in the clouds to see the Sun. We’ll be running a final post on Universe Today just days prior to the eclipse looking at weather prospects, solar activity and prospects for transits of the International Space Station and possible views from space.

The umbra of the Moon on Earth as seen from Mir in 1999. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos.

The second eclipse season for 2017 begins with a partial lunar eclipse favoring on August 7th… we’ve got you covered on that as well. And us? We’ll be watching the event from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in Smoky Mountains just outside of Asheville, North Carolina for a glorious 107 seconds of totality.

And after that? Well, totality visits that same living room in northern Maine on April 8th, 2024… I think I know where I’ll be then.

The path of the 2017 and 2024 eclipses. Credit: Michael Zeiler/Eclipse Maps.

A request- observing the eclipse from the path of totality? I’m planning on doing a state-by-state roundup post eclipse, perhaps with a paragraph of personal impressions from each observer. Let us know what your plans are!

-Read more about the August 21st total solar eclipse, plus the true tale of Edison’s Chickens and the 1878 total solar eclipse in out free e-guide to 101 Astronomical Events for 2017.

-Eclipse… fiction? Read our original eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales Exeligmos, Peak Season, Shadowfall and more!

A Thousand Days ‘Til Totality: Anticipating the 2017 Solar Eclipse

Where will YOU be on August 21st, 2017?

Astronomy is all about humility and thinking big in terms of space and time. It’s routine for astronomers to talk of comets on thousand year orbits, or stars with life spans measured in billions of years…

Yup, the lifespan of your average humanoid is indeed fleeting, and pales in comparison to the universe, that’s for sure. But one astronomical series that you can hope to live through is the cycle of eclipses.

I remember reading about the total solar eclipse of February 26th, 1979 as a kid. Carter was in the White House, KISS was mounting yet another comeback, and Voyager 1 was wowing us with images of Jupiter. That was also the last total solar eclipse to grace mainland United States in the 20th century.

But the ongoing “eclipse-drought” is about to be broken.

The path
The path of totality across the United States on August 21st, 2017. Credit: Great American Eclipse.com.

One thousand days from this coming Monday, November 24th on August 21st 2017, the shadow of the Moon will touch down off of the Oregon coast and sweep eastward across the U.S. heartland before heading out to the Atlantic off of the coast of South Carolina. Millions live within a days’ drive of the 115 kilometre wide path, and the eclipse has the added plus of occurring at the tail end of summer vacation season. This also means that lots of folks will be camping and otherwise mobile with their RVs and able to journey to the event.

The Great American Eclipse of 2017 from Michael Zeiler on Vimeo.

This is also the last total solar eclipse to pass over any of the 50 United States since July 11th, 1991, and the first eclipse to cross the  contiguous United States from “sea to shining sea” since way back on June 8th, 1918.

Think it’s too early to prepare?  Towns across the path, including Hopkinsville, Kentucky and towns in Kansas and Nebraska are already laying plans for eclipse day. Other major U.S. cities, such as Nashville, Idaho Falls, and Columbia, South Carolina also lie along the path of totality, and the spectacle promises to spawn a whole new generation of “umbraphiles” or eclipse chasers.

A total solar eclipse is an unforgettable sight. But unlike a total lunar eclipse, which can be viewed from the moonward-facing hemisphere of the Earth, one generally has to journey to the narrow path of totality to see a total solar eclipse. Totality rarely comes to you.

Viewing
The Zeilers view the November 2013 eclipse from Africa. Credit: Michael Zeiler.

And don’t settle for a 99% partial eclipse just outside the path. “There’s no comparison between partial and total solar eclipses when it comes to sheer grandeur and beauty,” Michael Zeiler, longtime eclipse chaser and creator of the Great American Eclipse website told Universe Today. We witnessed the 1994 annular solar eclipse of the Sun from the shores of Lake Erie, and can attest that a 99% partial eclipse is still pretty darned bright!

There are two total solar eclipses remaining worldwide up until 2017: One on March 20th, 2015 crossing the high Arctic, and another on March 9th 2016 over Southeast Asia. The 2017 eclipse offers a maximum of 2 minutes and 41 seconds of totality, and weather prospects for the eclipse in late August favors viewers along the northwestern portion of the track.

And though an armada of cameras will be prepared to capture the eclipse along its trek across the U.S., many veteran eclipse chasers suggest that first time viewers merely sit back and take in the moment. The onset of totality sees a bizarre sort of twilight fall across the landscape, as shadow bands skip across the countryside, temperatures drop, and wildlife is fooled into thinking that nightfall has come early.

And then, all too soon, the second set of blinding diamond rings burst through the lunar valleys, the eclipse glasses go back on, and totality is over. Which always raises the question heard throughout the crowd post-eclipse:

When’s the next one?

Well, the good news is, the United States will host a second total solar eclipse on April 8th, 2024, just seven years later! This path will run from the U.S. Southwest to New England, and crisscross the 2017 path right around Carbondale, Illinois.

Will the woo that surfaced around the approach of Comet ISON and the lunar tetrad of “blood Moon eclipses” rear its head in 2017? Ah, eclipses and comets seem to bring ‘em out of the woodwork, and 2017 will likely see a spike in the talking-head gloom and doom videos ala YouTube. Some will no doubt cite the “perfection” seen during total solar eclipses as proof of divine inspiration, though this is actually just a product of our vantage point in time and space. In fact, annular eclipses are slightly more common than total solars in our current epoch, and will become more so as the Moon slowly recedes from the Earth. And we recently noted in our post on the mutual phenomena of Jupiter’s moons that solar eclipses very similar to those seen from the Earth can also be spied from Callisto.

Heads up to any future interplanetary eclipse resort developer: Callisto is prime real estate.

Forget Mars... "Get your ass to totality!"
Forget Mars… “Get your ass to totality!” Credit: Great American Eclipse.

The 2017 total solar eclipse across America will be one for the history books, that’s for sure.

So get those eclipse safety glasses now, and be sure to keep ‘em handy through 2017 and onward to 2024!

-Read Dave Dickinson’s eclipse-fueled science fiction tales Shadowfall and Exeligmos.