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.

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.

A Hybrid Solar Eclipse Seen From Earth… and Space

The final eclipse for 2013 was a grand event, witnessed across the Atlantic and the heart of Africa this past Sunday. Like so many other photographers along the North American east coast, we were at the ready to greet the partially eclipsed Sun at dawn. And as the shadow of the Moon touched down, teams on land, air and sea were ready to meet with the fleeting umbra as it raced eastward towards sunset over the Horn of Africa region.

But a fleet of spacecraft were also on hand to witness the rare spectacle as well. Turned earthward and sunward, these spacecraft documented not only the passage of the Moon’s shadow over the Earth, but recorded multiple partial solar eclipses from orbit as well.

The first view comes from the Roscosmos Electro-L satellite based in a geostationary orbit over the Indian Ocean:

Electro-L had captured such a view before, during the annular eclipse over Australia earlier this year in May. Roscosmos increased the frame capture rate of Electro-L to twice its usual speed for the sequence. As you watch the Earth pass from a waning gibbous to crescent phase, you can just see the umbra, or central shadow of the Moon, slide into view and come into contact with the sunset terminator over eastern Africa. You can also see the cloud cover that marks the dust storms that plagued eclipse-chasers based around the Lake Turkana region in Kenya.

One of the first public pictures of the umbra of the Moon as seen from space was taken from the Mir space station during a total solar eclipse in 1999. To our knowledge, such a feat has yet to be duplicated aboard the International Space Station. The phase angle of the ISS’s orbit during the eclipse was nearly perpendicular to the Sun-Moon-Earth syzygy, and unfavorable for this particular eclipse.

Thanks to the Russian journalist Vitaliy Egorov for bringing the Electro-L eclipse sequence to the attention of Universe Today!

Next up is a sequence of images from NASA’s Aqua satellite:

Sunday's eclipse and the Moon's umbra as seen from the Aqua satellite. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).
Sunday’s eclipse and the Moon’s umbra off of the west coast of Africa as seen from the Aqua satellite. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).

Launched in 2002, Aqua is part of the “A-train” (as in “Afternoon”) constellation of Earth-observing satellites. Perched in a low-Earth Sun-synchronous orbit, Aqua caught sight of the umbra of the Moon at around 14:45 UT on Sunday, November 3rd as it raced to make first landfall over the nation of Gabon and awaiting eclipse chasers.

Some Sun observing spacecraft caught sight of the eclipse as well. The European Space Agency’s Proba-2 nabbed three partial solar eclipses from its vantage point in low Earth orbit:

PROBA-2 used its SWAP imager to grab the sequences. Orbiting the Earth once every 99 minutes or 14.5 time a day, these “orbital eclipses” are quick, lasting about 10 minutes each in duration.

Finally, EUMETSAT’s MeteoSat-10 meteorological satellite based in a geostationary orbit over Africa captured an outstanding sequence, showing nearly the entire trek of the umbra across the entire path of the eclipse:

The sequence runs from 7:30 to 18:30 UT on November 3rd. Note how the video shows the shadow fade in and sharpen as the eclipse touches down off of the US East Coast and intensifies from an annular to total along the first 15 seconds of its track, only to speed up and flatten towards sunset over Africa. And all in six seconds!

And back here on Earth, we couldn’t resist stitching together the bounty from our own minor eclipse expedition for a stop-motion view of the partially eclipsed Sun rising over the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida:

We’d like to also mention a photo that isn’t a “solar eclipse seen from space…” Y’know the one, which shows the Earth, the Moon’s shadow, and a totally-eclipsed Sun, against a star dappled Milky Way. We won’t dignify it with a link. This has already been debunked by Bad Astronomer himself Phil Plait, but the bogus pic now seems to make its rounds across ye’ ole Web now during every eclipse. Seriously? Do we all crave “link juice” that bad? There are lots of real awesome eclipse photos out there, from Earth & beyond! Please, do your part to tell that well meaning friend/coworker/relative/stranger on Twitter that this “ultimate eclipse photo…” isn’t.

How rare are hybrid solar eclipses? Well, the next solar eclipse that is both annular and total along its track occurs over southeast Asia on April 20th, 2023. It’s interesting to note that this past weekend’s eclipse may have been the first sunrise solar eclipse over the VAB since it was built in 1966. Eclipses in the same 18 years and 11 days- long saros cycle repeat, but move about 120 degrees westward. Thus, follow an eclipse cycle through a “triple saros”— known as an “Exeligmos,” an ultimate scrabble word if you can land it on a triple word score! —and an eclipse’s geometry will roughly line back up over a 54 year 33 day long span. Saros 143 produced a an eclipse crossing a similar path on October 2nd, 1959 (before the VAB was built!) and will repeat its Atlantic sunrise performance on December 6th, 2067! Let’s see, by then I’ll be…