Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Great American Eclipse!

One month from tomorrow, an event will take place. It will stretch across America from sea to shining sea, slashing across the country from Oregon to South Carolina: a total solar eclipse of the sun!

Map of eclipse path

As many of you might already know, I'm something of an astronomy fan and have had this event on my calendar for over TWENTY YEARS when I first heard about the "great eclipse" in high school! It's the first total solar eclipse to touch the US mainland since 1979. That's how big of a deal this is. But you don't have to be an astro nut to appreciate this event.

This isn't my first total solar eclipse. I've been lucky enough to see two other total solar eclipses (off the coast of Bulgaria in the Black Sea in 1999 and in Zimbabwe in 2001), so I can tell you with some authority that it will be the most spectacular natural wonder you will ever witness. You'll probably be hearing a lot more about this upcoming event in the during the next month. You'll hear all sorts of superlatives thrown about. Amazing, jaw-dropping, whatever.... None of them will do it justice. No matter how incredible you can imagine such a spectacle can be, increase it by a factor of ten and you'll still come back saying it's not even a close approximation of the real thing.

It's that good. Seriously. You don't even have to just take my word for it--anyone who has witnessed totality will say the same thing. (Don't be fooled by "pretenders." They'll tell you they have seen eclipses and it was interesting, but if they aren't throwing around superlatives left and right, you can be certain of one thing: They've never seen a total solar eclipse.)

I'm sure you've seen pictures and videos of total solar eclipses, and think "yeah, that looks pretty." But remember this: Film does not capture what the eye can see. You hear the phrase "pictures can't do it justice," but that's especially true with a total solar eclipse. For most of you, it will be the first time in your lives that you'll be able to see the sun's corona--the plasma that extends millions of miles out from the sun. Corona is Latin for "crown," and a better word couldn't be used to describe it. It's the crown jewels of the sky.

Everywhere in the contiguous United States will see an eclipse varying from about 50% covered (at the extreme southern part of Texas and northern parts of Maine) to 100%, so it'll be interesting to watch no matter where in the country you are. But make it a point to get to the path of totality if you can possibly swing it. Sell your grandmother if you have to! (That's totally a joke--don't sell anyone, except maybe a kid if they're causing you lots of grief.)

And don't think that seeing a 99% covered sun means you get 99% of the benefits of totality. Portland, Oregon, for instance, will be just outside the path of totality with 99% coverage. You get ZERO benefits at 99%! It's the difference between night and day!

During the partial phases of the eclipse, you'll need eye protection from the sun. You'll find eclipse shades in the AQ Marketplace if you still need some. (Don't wait until the last minute to order them, though--if you try to order them a couple of days before the eclipse, they probably won't arrive in time!)

Just before totality, the sun turns into a very thin crescent, then breaks up into what are called Baily's beads. These are the last remnants of the sun peeking through valleys on the moon's uneven surface. Every break between each "bead" is a moon mountain blocking out the sun. As the eclipse progresses, the beads will wink out one by one. When there are only a few left, it's probably safe to take off your eclipse glasses and look directly at eclipse. (If it hurts your eyes at all, , though, put the glasses back on immediately!) You'll hear everyone say that you can't look safely at the sun with the naked eye unless it's totally eclipsed, but the few seconds immediately before and after the eclipse are perfectly safe to check out and you'll miss the dazzling diamond ring if you don't!

So when there are a few of the Baily's beads still showing, take a peek at the sun with the naked eye. This is when the magic really starts to happen. I dare you not to gasp! =)

When there's only one of the Baily's beads left, it has a special name: the diamond ring. You'll understand when you see it. *nodding* (And again, photos don't do it justice! All those photos you've seen of the diamond ring are a pale imitation of the real thing!)

Image result for total solar eclipse
The diamond ring.... looks absolutely nothing like this in real life!
But film can't capture the spectrum of colors that the human eye can.

Depending on where you are in the eclipse path, you'll have about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of totality along the center line. Most people will try to get as close to the center line as possible since that's where the maximum length of the eclipse occurs, but don't feel pressured into it. There are advantages in being closer to the eclipse edge (which I did during eclipse in Zimbabwe in 2001--no regrets!) Technically, the length of totality is shorter at the edge, but you can safely watch the eclipse with the naked eye for as long as a minute or two before and after totality and your total viewing time isn't really all that much off from the center line!

My best piece of advice: DON'T TAKE PHOTOS! Seriously--don't do it! Your photos won't do it justice, and you have such a very short time to enjoy the view of a lifetime. Soak it all in! You can download other photos that professionals have taken from the Internet later in the day (and you'll smugly think, "Yeah, that's not even close to what I saw.")

A more interesting idea, if you want to save the memories of your eclipse experience to film, is to videotape it. Set up your camera pointing at you and your group of friends or family about ten or so minutes before totality and let it run for at least five or ten minutes after totality. If you can lock the exposure level when you start it, that would probably be a good idea so you can actually see everything get darker during totality. You don't want your camera to automatically brighten the image to compensate for the darkening view!

I'll probably post more about the eclipse in the upcoming days. I want to create a checklist of things to look for when the eclipse happens. It moves so fast, it's easy to forget to look for specific things. The temperature will drop noticeably during totality. Just before or after totality, you might see shadow bands skimming across the ground. You might see birds suddenly come out of napping and freaking out. You might see a huge, giant shadow on the western horizon traveling between 1,500 and 2,500 mph and enveloping you. You might see a sunset 360 degrees around you along the horizon. You might see Venus twinkling in the sky. You might look for tiny sun crescents under trees as each hole between the leaves turns into a pinpoint projection of the eclipsed sun. And at the height of totality, you might not have time to remember all of this stuff without a checklist!

My other piece of advice.... wherever you go to watch this eclipse--get to the location early. It's going to be popular! The path of totality averages about 65 miles wide, and there will likely be millions of people trying to cram into that narrow path. Gridlock will certainly be common as small towns suddenly see their populations grow 10 times their normal sizes! Bring lots of food and water so you don't have to depend on nearby services that may be strained beyond capacity. Get to your location early and hang out. Bring something to read or load up your portable devices with your favorite Netflix shows. Keep in mind that cell phone reception could be spotty if you're way out in the woods, and the sheer number of people in small towns could overload their systems so even normally reliable service might not be so reliable.

You'll have an hour or two to watch the partial phases of the eclipse before totality, and another hour or two to watch it again in reverse. Hang out and enjoy the whole show. Based on the other total solar eclipses I've seen (and two annular eclipses too--which have the same congestion issues), almost everyone will try to leave immediately after totality ends. I'd suggest hanging back for a couple of hours and just enjoy the eclipse in reverse. It's not as exciting as totality, but you've already blocked out the day for the event anyhow, so why not? And by the time you leave, traffic probably won't be so bad anymore.

Several people have asked where I'll be for the eclipse. Surely I'll have an event for it! And, well... I find myself not really wanting to commit to a specific place. I want to see what the weather forecasts will be the day or two before the event before committing to a location. But for the time being, Amanda and I are leaning towards a location in western Nebraska--maybe around Scottsbluff--so if you find yourself in that part of the world for the eclipse, you're certainly more than welcome to join us for the festivities! I'll have my telescope with a solar filter so we'd be able to get a very good look at the eclipse during its partial phases! I might not share it during totality, though. ;o) Actually, I'm not sure I could get the solar filter off and back on without messing up the aim of the telescope in the short time there is during totality, so I probably won't be using it at all then!

Solar Eclipse Interactive Map: Use you can use this to learn exactly when the eclipse will start and finish and how long it'll last at anywhere in the United States.

Image result for total solar eclipse
This is probably one of the best photos of what
the eclipse looks like--after being pieced together
from a dozen other photos at various exposures.
But it's still a terrible representation of the real thing!


Debbie St.Amand said...

Well, now I'm really sad that I'll miss totality. Oh well, Have to settle for magnitude 83, which is what we get down here. Better than nothing, I guess.

Ryan said...

Well, fortunately, the next total solar eclipse through the US is in a mere 7 years, so you'll have another chance then! =) Runs through Mexico into Texas and upwards through Maine and Canada if I recall. A bit out of the way for Florida, but certainly doable if you plan ahead!

Renee Walker said...

I am traveling to see it! I'm very excited.
Thanks for the info.