BOSTON – Six months from today, millions of Americans will watch the sun darken during a rare coast-to-coast eclipse – and it’s not too early to get into the spirit of totality.
It’s definitely not too early to figure out where you’re going to be: Hotel rooms in the track of the total solar eclipse for the time around Aug. 21 were scarce six months ago, and they’re virtually impossible to find now. In the Pacific Northwest, you’ll have to settle for a room in, say, Portland or Walla Walla, plus a significant drive.
What’s the attraction? You’ll be in on one of our planet’s weirdest phenomena, a minute or two when the sun turns black, surrounded by a shimmering corona. It’ll be much more than an astronomical event.
“This will be the most photographed, the most shared, the most tweeted event in human history,” artist-astronomer Tyler Nordgren said over the weekend in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Over the course of an hour and a half on Monday, Aug. 21, the moon’s 70-mile-wide umbral shadow will race from Oregon to South Carolina, touching 12 other states along the way. And that’s just the total eclipse: All of North America will see a partial solar eclipse, with up to 92 percent of the sun’s disk covered in Seattle’s skies.
Astronomers and educators have already laid grand plans to capitalize on the event. If you have any chance to get into the path of totality, do it. Williams College astronomer Jay Pasachoff, a veteran of 64 solar eclipse expeditions, noted that seeing a 99 percent eclipse is basically 0.00001 percent as good as seeing 100 percent totality. “It’s a poor second to be off to the side,” he said.
With that in mind, here are 10 ways to get fired up before and during the eclipse:
Watch the ‘Southern Ring of Fire’ eclipse: In a warmup for August’s main event, an annular solar eclipse is due to sweep through Chile and Argentina as well as the southern Atlantic and southwestern Africa next Sunday, Feb. 26. Solar eclipses occur when the moon comes right between the sun and Earth, but if the moon is far enough away, its disk doesn’t fully cover the sun’s disk. That creates a “ring of fire” effect in the sky. The Slooh virtual observatory plans to provide live streaming video of the eclipse from its observing partners starting at around 4 a.m. PT Feb. 26, with Time and Date as a partner. The best time to watch should be around 5:30 a.m. PT for views from South America, and 8:25 a.m. PT for views from Africa.
Stock up on solar glasses: If you’re going to watch the August eclipse’s partial phase with your own eyes, you’ll need certified eye protection. Commercial solar glasses are the best option, and they’re cheap. They can be purchased for as little as $1 a pair, and if you’re in the right place at the right time, you can get ’em free as a giveaway. Make sure they’re certified (ISO 12312-2), and make sure you and your friends wear them while the sun is glaring. Take them off during totality so you can enjoy the corona’s subtle glow and the eerily dark surroundings.
Sign up for the Citizen CATE campaign: The National Solar Observatory is sponsoring the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment, in which scores of telescopes in the path of totality will make coordinated observations of the solar corona. Citizen CATE has 59 teams already signed up, and the campaign is looking for 40 more teams who are willing to buy their own equipment. If you’re interested, start organizing the bake sale: The estimated cost of the standard Citizen CATE rig is $3,700, and some assembly and modification is required.
Go high with an eclipse-watching balloon: The Eclipse Ballooning Project, organized by the NASA Space Grant program, has recruited more than 50 student teams to send up high-altitude balloons with instruments that will send down pictures and live video during the eclipse. “It’s never been done live, and certainly not in a network of coverage across a continent,” the organizers say. Two teams are from Washington state – specifically, the University of Washington and Central Washington University. This’ll be one of the projects to watch on Eclipse Day.
Study how the eclipse affects plants and animals: The California Academy of Sciences is planning a coast-to-coast campaign to observe how plants and animals respond to the eclipse in areas where at least 80 percent of the sun’s disk is covered. That means Seattle is in the zone. To participate, check out the website for “Solar Eclipse 2017: Life Responds,” and be prepared to download the iNaturalist app.
Contribute to the Eclipse Megamovie: Google, the University of California at Berkeley and a host of partners have put together a project aimed at stitching together images of the total eclipse captured from sites spanning the continent, to create a two-hour-long video documenting the different looks. The participants will include photographers, astronomers and just plain folks from the general public. Sign up for the Eclipse Megamovie Project now, and stay tuned for the details later.
Track the very edge of totality: The Eclipse Edge Determination Project will provide ground truth for the fundamental question surrounding any total eclipse. Exactly where does totality stop? Volunteers will be stationed at locations on either side of the projected edge of the total eclipse zone in Minden, Nebraska, and report whether they saw totality or just missed it. The observations will be documented primarily through smartphone videos. Other sites could be added to the experiment, including the Oregon towns of Redmond and Canby. The results could lead to an updated measurement of the sun’s diameter.
Do-it-yourself relativity test: A solar eclipse in 1919 marked the first successful test of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, by proving that the sun’s gravitational field bent beams of starlight that passed close by. Amateur astronomer Donald Bruns plans to conduct a similar test during August’s eclipse, using off-the-shelf telescope equipment. And he says others can do it, too. Check out the technical paper.
Tune in your ham radio: During a total solar eclipse, the moon’s shadow causes changes to Earth’s ionosphere that affect radio-wave propagation. These changes have been studied for more than 50 years, but there’s still more to learn. HamSCI is inviting amateur radio operators to participate in an experiment to characterize the ionospheric response to August’s total eclipse.
Brush up on eclipse lore: Six months gives you lots of time to delve into subjects ranging from the science of eclipses to where and when you can best see totality. Here are 10 websites to get you in the mood on Aug. 21:
- “Total Eclipse” from NASA
- Great American Eclipse
- International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Solar Eclipses
- “Solar Eclipse Across America” from the American Astronomical Society
- Observer’s Guide from the National Science Teachers Association
- EarthSky: Total Eclipse of the Sun
- Time and Date: Total Solar Eclipse
- NBC Interactive: What Causes a Solar Eclipse?