Fun in the Sun

Fun in the Sun

Friends, Family, Romans, and Countrymen (aka my fellow Americans),

I realize that not all of you may be aware of the AMAZING celestial event happening on August 21, 2017 right here in our collective backyards. So as your on-call astronomer, I thought it my duty to give you the 4-1-1. 

This August there will be a TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE over the continental US. This is the first time in almost 40 years <cough cough my lifetime> that the path of a total solar eclipse has crossed our country. It is NOT TO BE MISSED. That said, if you have to miss it, there is another one in April 2024, but after that you are seriously out of luck for a while

The path of totality is the ground track where the eclipse is 100% visible, meaning anywhere in that path you will see the Sun become 100% blocked by the Moon. The duration of the eclipse varies from 1 minute to 2 minutes and 41 seconds depending on where you are in the path with respect to the centerline. The maximum duration occurs at the centerline only. 

The image below (click to enlarge) shows how this line crosses the US from western Oregon, thru Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina. It also cuts the corners of Kansas, Kentucky, and Georgia. The solid red lines parallel to the path of totality mark the decreasing amounts of the eclipse that will be visible the farther you get form the centerline, starting with 90% and dropping by 10% each time. 

Ground track of eclipse. Credit:

I should note that being within the path of totality is QUITE different from seeing even 90% of the Sun’s disc covered by the Moon. A total eclipse means complete darkness during the day - something that’s really hard to imagine when the worst you’ve ever seen is a massive thunderstorm darkening the skies. So if you can swing it, I definitely recommend getting where you can see the full eclipse. That said, I’ve totally failed you as your go-to astronomer for not writing all this down sooner as almost all hotels, Air BnBs, couches, camp grounds, etc are already booked solid. There are a lot of astronomers in the country who have been planning their trips for years in addition to the “eclipse chasers” community (which is seriously a thing, I swear). I promise to rectify this with much more advance notice about details for the 2024 eclipse. Please hold me to that. 

Regardless of where you will be on August 21st, I beg you to go outside and look up (SAFELY) if the skies are clear. The timing of the eclipse will be around 2:40pm EDT, 1:10pm CDT, 11:45am MDT, 10:25am PDT (guesstimates). While totality will only last for a couple minutes, the entire process of the Moon crossing the face of the Sun is closer to 2-3 hours (along the centerline, less the farther away you are). [FYI, even during a total solar eclipse, you should NEVER look at the sun directly, only with proper safety glasses.]

Without knowing where you are will be that day, I’ve broken down the details for each city you dear people live in (or almost every city) in this Google spreadsheet. It will show you the percent of the Sun that will be eclipsed from your location, the time the Moon starts to cross the face of the Sun, the time of the maximum eclipse, and the time the Moon leaves the face of the Sun. You can also get this info directly via this Totality app available from iTunes.

Should you want to attempt to drive to the centerline on the day of the eclipse, I warn you that there may be millions (yes literally millions) of other people with the same idea. I guarantee not all the cities and roads along the path of totality are prepared for the amount of visitors they will see for this event. So be warned that traffic will be horrific and you should probably bring your own snacks. This Google Map of the path of totality incorporating traffic forecasts might come in handy. 

I could probably write a book about this, but I'll just leave you with some advice I've heard from many seasoned eclipse observers: 

When you look at the eclipse, you will perceive the blackest black imaginable surrounded by the Sun's ever-changing atmosphere, the corona. The quality of light is stupendous with an amazing light show of iridescence, scintillation, and delicate colors. 
Another realization that may hit you during totality is that you are watching the solar system in motion. In real-time, you can perceive the relative motions of the Moon around Earth and the Earth around the Sun. 
Even for those who have seen it before, a total solar eclipse is an intensely emotional experience. You will feel ecstasy, wonder, and regret when it is over. You will immediately discuss plans to see the next one.
A piece of wisdom that all experienced eclipse observers tell those new to totality: do not attempt photography during the precious two minutes of the Sun in total eclipse. Instead, capture the moment with your senses and savor each second of the precious two minutes of totality. What you see will be seared in your mind's eye for the rest of your life. No camera can capture the full range of light, darkness, and colors of the corona and sky. Besides, you will be so mesmerized by the spectacle that you may not be able to operate your camera.
Experienced astrophotographers will make their photographs available on the web soon after the event. You will appreciate these photographs but with a knowing smile that these images, no matter how good, are a pale reflection of what you saw with your very own eyes.

If you want to geek out even more, here are a few great websites with all you could ever want to know:

StarTalk Radio - Science Gets Fabulous

StarTalk Radio - Science Gets Fabulous