Few natural events continue to inspire as much as a total solar eclipse, undiminished by the advancing Space Age and personal electronics. A very rare sight for any particular point on Earth, they once commanded sheer dread. The awesome spectacle of the Moon blocking out the Sun will take place across the United States on Aug. 21.
This edition of “Looking Up” will include an overview of what’s ahead. In the next few weeks we plan to cover how you can safely view the partial solar eclipse even if you don’t make the trip to see the total event, and other aspects.
Readers’ comments are also being sought.
Have you ever witnessed a total solar eclipse?
Please SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCE with a note sent to the writer at [email protected] Pictures that you took are also most welcome. Tell us about the eclipse, and from your first hand observations, what others can expect. Which eclipse did you see, and from where? What did it mean to you? An edition of “Looking Up” will be devoted to your comments, if enough are received. Please send them by Aug. 1.
The last total solar eclipse to enter the continental U.S. occurred on Feb. 26, 1979.
Imagine a bright sunny day, with turquoise skies and the brilliant sunshine we all enjoy. Gradually, the illumination around you diminishes; It takes some time before you notice. If you had not heard about the eclipse you might think a cloud temporarily blocked the Sun. Then it happens.
The Moon has fully engulfed the Sun.
For the next minute or so, your eyes are drawn up to behold in the middle of the day, a small black circle surrounded by a fire-like glow (the Sun’s corona). The sky itself has darkened so much it is like deep twilight, and the bright stars and planets have appeared.
There’s more startling effects, such as the strange “shadow bands” that have raced across the ground and a sudden drop in temperature.
All too soon the eclipse is over.
Astronomers understand the Moon’s path very well, and have calculated centuries in advance, when total solar eclipses occur, and where they may be seen. The configuration of the Moon’s orbit leads to alignments of the Sun, Moon and Earth that occur in predictable cycles.
There’s no other placement of a planet and its satellites in the Solar System, where the moon as seen from the planet is very nearly the same apparent width of the Sun. We get the front row seat to an amazing cosmic dance seen no where else in the Sun’s family.
The round Moon casts a long cone-shaped shadow. When the Moon is in it’s “new” phase and exactly between the Sun and Earth, the shadow touches the Earth in a narrow spot, and traces a path as the Earth rotates under it.
During most months, the New Moon just misses the Sun, and its shadow misses the Earth.
The Aug. 21 eclipse, as seen from the United States first cross Oregon, and heads southeast through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, the northeast tip of Kansas, Missouri, southern Illinois, western Kentucky, Tennessee, small parts of western North Carolina and northern Georgia, and across South Carolina.
There’s another total solar eclipse in 2024 that also crosses the United States, in the other direction — southwest to northeast. The paths of the 2017 and 2024 events cross in southern Illinois and small adjacent areas of Missouri and Kentucky. (The 2024 eclipse will be visible in upstate New York, the closest point to northeast Pennsylvania)
To see any solar eclipse, there are two very important things to remember: First is safety. NEVER look at the Sun without proper eye protection — a safe, solar filter or by indirect means. Without proper precautions, the focused Sun in a telescope will burn the eye.
Secondly, this is also a lesson in patience. Clouds might interfere. That is true whether you are hoping to see the stars by night or an eclipse by day.
The Aug. 21 total solar eclipse has been much anticipated. Thousands of people will be planning summer vacations around the eclipse, checking forecasts and making reservations. You can be sure, hotel and motel rooms will fill fast along the eclipse path. Across the country, however, there will be a very interesting PARTIAL solar eclipse, which may be enjoyed with safety precautions. More on this later.
Here are a few web sites to learn more about this eclipse:
Please send me your reports about past solar eclipses.
Meanwhile, Full Moon is on May 9th.
Keep Looking up.
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at [email protected] Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.