The year has only just begun and yet people across the world are already gearing up for the biggest astronomical event to take place in North America in almost forty years. On Monday, August 21, 2017 a total solar eclipse will sweep across the United States, darkening skies from the West coast all the way to the East coast. Sky watchers, sun chasers, moon gazers, astronomers, and just about everyone else will turn their attention to the cosmos and get a chance to witness this rare and spectacular celestial event!
The 2017 eclipse is already being called the “Great American Total Solar Eclipse” and many people are extremely excited for this one, some have even been waiting decades to see it. If you want to get the most out of the mid-August eclipse, you’ll need to plan ahead first and know all about what to expect from the experience.
During a total solar eclipse the moon appears to completely and totally cover the sun. With the sunlight blocked out, it’s prevented from reaching Earth, day suddenly turns into night and darkness falls upon parts of the planet. This occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth and like all solar eclipses, it must happen during a new moon. Furthermore, the alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth all must enter into syzergy, meaning they are in conjunction and aligned both straight and evenly. Because the moon’s orbit is slightly tilted and elliptical, rather than circular and on an even orbital plane to that of the Earth, its shadow at new moon almost always misses Earth.
However, when syzergy occurs and the new moon is at a place in its orbit where it’s close enough to appear just as large as the sun is, a total solar eclipse can occur. Yet even still, in order to view it here on Earth, a person needs to be at a location in what is called the path of totality. That is the area where the moon’s shadow tracks along on the Earth’s surface below as it sweeps across the sun. It’s also where viewing is the best and darkest because the sun is totally blocked out by the moon!
For this upcoming great American total solar eclipse the path of totality happens to pass beautifully across a number of states in a narrow arc which will be approximately 75 miles wide. It starts up on the Pacific Northwest coast of Oregon and travels over and down on a southeasterly bend crossing over parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, before ending in South Carolina. According to Space.com skywatching columnist Joe Rao, approximately 12 million people live in the narrow path of totality and a further 220 million live within a one day drive of it.
Those who are lucky enough to experience the eclipse in the path of totality will have anywhere between a few seconds and 2 minutes and 44 seconds of it, which is the longest period of totality according to data provided by the US Naval Observatory on their official eclipse page. In case you’re wondering, the exact spot with the greatest duration is located somewhere within the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois.
Of course, all views of the eclipse hinge on two important factors, one being the weather and two being eye protection. Proper eye wear is essential and critical for anyone who plans on looking up at the eclipse. You should only do so with special solar viewing glasses on at all times which allow you to safety look at the eclipse. Sunglasses, even layering several pairs of them, will not provide adequate protection and don’t even think about using binoculars!
We all know the general rule of thumb which is to never stare at the sun, but during solar eclipses extra special care needs to be taken. Because the sun is partly covered by the moon, people find it easy to look and stare at. They feel the need to blink less and their pupils are also less likely to contract instinctively, like how they otherwise would do on a normal bright day. Instead they may even dilate, allowing infra red light waves into the eyes, which can seriously burn the retina and even fry it.
We’ve all heard the warnings and horror stories about how someone went blind during a solar eclipse and while it may seem far fetched or exaggerated, the risk is real. Gazing directly at the sun’s photosphere, the bright disc, for any amount of time can and will result in damage to our fragile eyes. So please invest in a pair of specially designed eclipse glasses that filter the sun and can easily be found online for cheap. These should be worn for the entire duration of the eclipse, especially for the vast majority of us who are not in the path of totality and who will instead experience a partial solar eclipse. The only real safe time to look directly at the sun without protection is during the fleeting window of totality when it’s completely covered by the moon.
Now that you know more about the August 2017 solar eclipse you can mark your calendar and have something really neat and astronomically cool to look forward to! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience first hand but if you want to view it in the path of totality, plan accordingly because hundreds of thousands of other people are doing exactly that. In the end, it all comes down to being in the right place at the right time. Be prepared, plan ahead, and be sure to check out the helpful eclipse maps to find out more specific details.
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