Hey, Sky Fans! Wednesday again! I’m still enjoying the glow of finally making it to my first ever U2 concert, after over 30 years of waiting. I got the Joshua Tree on the hi-fi, and… here we are again. If you’re in the US I, hope you had a great, and safe, Independence Day.
It’s Wednesday, which, around here, usually means Word of the Week, but I think instead, we’ll talk about something else.
This is the first of a probably-three-part series of articles about the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States on August 21, 2017.
I’m sure, by now, you’ve heard, maybe in the previous paragraph, but here it is again. On Monday August 21, 2017, there’ll be a total solar eclipse visible from coast to coast in the United States.
A few sentences of science: A solar eclipse happens when the Moon, always in the new moon phase, crosses between the Sun and a given viewpoint, for our purposes, on Earth. It blocks out some or all of the Sun, and the viewer drops into the Moon’s shadow. There are a couple of solar eclipses each year, so they’re not that uncommon. Trouble is, because of the geometry of the Moon’s orbit, it doesn’t always pass exactly in front of the Sun. Also, Earth is quite a bit bigger than the Moon is, so the Moon casts a relatively small shadow. Add all of this together, and the chances of a total solar eclipse — an eclipse when the entire face of the Sun is blocked by the Moon — hitting a given spot anywhere on Earth is pretty rare. In fact, the band of totality for this “Great American Eclipse” is only about 70 miles wide. That’s it. Anyone within that band will be directly under the complete shadow of the Moon. For them, day becomes night for a fleeting 150 seconds or so.
This is the first time since 1979 that a total solar eclipse will be visible in the US, and the first since around the time of the first world war that one has been visible over such long stretch of the country.
With good reason, we’re starting to hear more and more about this. It’s really quite an amazing event that many people have called life-changing and life-affirming. Who knows how many future astronomers and cosmologists will be watching? Maybe the person who designs the engine that’ll send us to the stars will get their start, their first inspiration, that afternoon.
But… what if you’re put off by the distance to that 70-mile-wide band? From my firefly-filled front yard, the nearest spot with totality is over 700 miles away. Or, what if it’s too expensive? I’ve been looking around and seen some very expensive campsites for rent, plus airfare or gas. Or, what if you can’t get away from work, or you’re concerned about the crowds, the traffic into and out of the zone? Or, your kid (maybe even one of your favorite ones) has a clarinet tournament that same week?
What if you just can’t make it?
Sure, anything can happen, but I’d be surprised if I see totality. I’m disappointed. I feel like I’m really missing out on something very special; a high school kid missing the prom (it’ll be okay; trust me). One by one, science and astronomy magazines are putting out their August issues with articles about totality. One by one, they’re twisting the knife just a little.
So, what are the rest of us to do?
What if there was no total eclipse at all, if you weren’t missing out, so to speak? If your front door was right in the line of the maximum eclipse, though no totality, would you look? I would.
Well, guess what. Just because you’re out of the totality band, doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Almost the entire North American continent is within the area that will see the Moon eat at least some of the Sun. Most of the US will see a very deep partial eclipse.
So, what are we to do?
We do the one thing I hope you take from everything we talk about here: we look up.
Here’s a screen shot of an interactive map from Time and Date.
You can use the actual map to narrow things down to where you’ll be, and see how much of an eclipse you’ll see. Where I am, almost three quarters of the Sun will vanish! Not bad. How about you?
If you’re still not sure, when was the last time you saw any part of an eclipse? I saw a small partial one in the 1990s, and it was exhilarating. I was revved up. I wanted to see another.
When’s the last time you saw the Moon move? I mean, actually watched it as it moved, visibly. It moves from one day to the next, sure, but when’s the last time you actually observed that movement? During eclipses, with the Sun as a backdrop, you will.
When is the last time you actually saw the solar system, the universe, large-scale physics itself, at work?
So, what are we to do? Understand what we’re missing, but also understand what we having waiting for us. Just grab some people you love, and look up. If you need some help, I have a few pairs of eclipse glasses. Email me if you need them. We’ll talk more about how to do it safely another time. Hopefully, you won’t need to wait 30 years, like I did to see U2, to see the next eclipse. Totality hits the US again on April 8, 2024.
Thanks for stopping by, and clear skies, everyone!