DON'T MISS THE UPCOMING TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SUN
This month is August 2015 and the eclipse of the Sun isn't till August 17, 2017. But because it will sweep across the United States, it's an unusual opportunity for Americans to see such a spectacular sight so close to home.
And it's spectacular because it will be a TOTAL eclipse, not a partial. It's the difference between night and day, literally, because when you see a total eclipse it is indeed night, whereas with the more common partial it's still day.
This photo was taken when the sunshine normally would have been bright, but at this moment the Moon completely obscured the Sun. The soft glow of light reflected off gas and "dust" around the Sun gives the white corona you see here around the dark Moon; the dark sky is the wide shadow of the Moon sweeping across the sky. It is perfectly safe to look at the soft corona during the minutes of a total eclipse and it's so nice I guarantee that you will wish the total eclipse would keep on going a lot longer.
Lots of nice photos from previous eclipses are seen by Goggling on "eclipse photos corona". Forget your own hand-held camera; the Sun and Moon are smaller than you think and only a good sized telescope can take pictures like these. (Your thumb, for example, will easily obscure the Sun if you hold it out at arm's length.)
And you can see a total eclipse in 2017! Mark your calendars now -- don't let anything interfere with your taking in this amazing spectacle. But you have to be somewhere along the narrow band the shadow traces. Fortunately, astronomy is one of the most exact sciences and everything about an eclipse can be predicted thousands of years in advance (or in the past).
For this eclipse you have to be somewhere along the band shown in this map -- preferably on the center line of the band where the duration of totality is the longest because the shadow is the widest. The shadow sweeps from west to east as the Moon "zips" past the slower-moving Sun. The path of the shadow, the band, is only about 65 miles wide, so unless you are very lucky some travel will be needed to get on the line. (If you are in Salina, for example, just go to Kansas City, unless the weather forecast for KC is for clouds.)
And you really want to be within a few miles of the CENTER of the band because then you will have the longest duration of the total eclipse as the oval-shaped shadow races past you. On the West and East coasts, the duration is only about 1 minute. But a bit inland the times reach and exceed 2 minutes. Where Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky join, the duration is about 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest of all the times. Kansas City has almost as much time, 2 minutes 38 seconds. (The maximum possible time for any total eclipse is over 7 minutes, but this eclipse doesn't come close to that.) So its short, but it's enough to make you a different person forever. It's that awesome!
Partial eclipses are fine, but they don't begin to compare to a total. This photo shows some of the partial eclipses that are formed for an hour before the total and then again after the total. The partials are NOT safe to look at with unprotected eyes, but the total is perfectly safe. Do NOT trust home-made viewing devices; your vision is too important. A simple and safe technique is to project an image onto some paper using a pin hole or by holding binoculars AWAY from your body and let the double image be projected onto paper. I'll try to make this more clear as August 2017 approaches.
During the short time of totality you can safely use binoculars to better see the wonderfully soft corona, as shown on the right. In fact, I encourage it, as long as you drop the binoculars before totality ends and a partial begins. You don't know for sure the shape of the corona in advance, but it's always interesting. The shape depends on the sunspot activity at the time; this old photo is my best guess at the moment for how it will look in 2017, but there could be long streamers also.
Carole & I have gone to total eclipses around the world starting in 1970. Each one created enthusiasm to see more and more. We've skipped those that are very short or in some inhospitable location, which is most of them. But we've been to 7 total eclipses and enjoyed them all, even when we had bad luck with clouds (2 times out of 7 tries).
This map shows total eclipses from 1974 through 2029. I drew it in 1974 to help me examine total eclipses in the rest of my hopeful life time. The red line across the US is the path for the one in 2017. The red dots show where we saw eclipses from 1970 through 1999.
Savannah, GA (1970) [thick clouds]
Africa, cruise ship off the west coast (1973) [clear sky]
Australia (1974) [clear hole in clouds]
Canada (1979) [clear sky]
Mexico (1991) [clear hole in clouds]
Caribbean, cruse ship west of Cominica (1998) [clear sky]
France (1999) [thick clouds]
Should you want to read brief summaries of our 7 experiences, download a WORD document by clicking here. I included representative photos of the eclipse in the 5 cases when it was not behind clouds.
I'm saying all this two years in advance because some planning may be needed, like keeping your calendar free for August 17, 2017. It's easy to see the more common partial eclipses and they are fun, but it takes a total eclipse to be awesome. Experts work out the chance of clear skies at locations along the band, but they have about a 50% chance of being right themselves, I've learned. In 1999 the skies were practically certain to be clear in Bulgaria with about 50% chance in France. We chose to go to France because even if the clouds blocked our view (which they did), we'd still be in France! And even in France, two places we'd spent nights had clear skies for the eclipse -- we just picked an unlucky spot on the center line. C'est la vie! It was a fun trip regardless.
I'll have more details on this web site as Aug. 2017 approaches, but if you have questions any time please write or call and I'll enjoy discussing them with you.
If you have the time, here is a true tale that illustrates the impact a total eclipse has on the lucky viewers.
Carole & I flew to Winnipeg, Canada for the total eclipse of Feb. 26, 1975. Using detailed maps, I chose a spot on a country road just north of the big city where we'd be on the center line of the shadow's path and have the longest duration of totality. The Moon's shadow would pass over this site about 11 AM and we got there in plenty of time. It was bitterly cold, hoar front on the wire fences was huge, but the sky was clear.
We were alone in this broad countryside, alone until a kindly farmer stopped his truck to ask if we needed some help. No, we were just here for the eclipse. The farmer had heard about an eclipse but didn't know what it was and wasn't really interested in it. But he was impressed that people from Kansas would come all this way into Canada for whatever it was. Off he went.
Half an hour later with about 5 minutes until totality, so much of the Sun was blocked it was like twilight and getting darker quickly -- at 11 AM! Just when I wanted to fully concentrate on the eclipse in progress, the farmer returned at high speed, skidded to a stop, and had a zillion question about what was going on. I gave very brief answers because it wasn't the time for a lot of talking. More concerned than informed, he said he had to get back to his wife and off he sped. I like to think that the pair survived the eclipse, although I never saw either of them ever again.
My point is that this person with no real knowledge or interest in the eclipse was put into a feverish state by the sudden loss of sunlight in midday. Although this was our 4th eclipse, as it began to get seriously darker I admit to feeling some privative urges concerning the importance of the Sun to us. Had I been born 10,000 year earlier, I probably would have thrown stones and spears at the thing swallowing the Sun. It's that awesome.
It takes about an hour for the Moon to completely cover the Sun. The last few seconds before the total eclipse begins, sunlight streams through lunar valleys aimed at us right along the edge of the Moon. This forms what is called the "diamond ring" effect, for obvious reasons. This is the 1979 "ring." Your eyes tolerate these last few seconds (but not any earlier). The red "bumps" are caused by hot hydrogen ejected from the Sun's surface, something that goes on all the time. Each little red spot is larger than Earth.
After the diamond ring is gone, the Sun's surface is totally blocked and the beautiful corona is perfectly safe to view. (It's not even as bright as the Moon.) The corona is sunlight scattered off gases and "dust" ejected by the Sun. The shape is variable, but in 1979 it was rather symmetrical. In 2017 the shape may be more elongated. It's very difficult to photograph because the brightness varies widely with distance from the Sun. Pros have special devices and tricks to apply. I don't.
Great photos of the 1998 eclipse are at http://www.mreclipse.com/SEreports/TSE1998reports/TSE98Espenak.html .
A good introduction to the 2017 eclipse is at http://www.eclipse2017.org/2017/what_you_see.htm .
For the ultimate in technical details about this eclipse or others, use the web sites of Fred Espenak of NASA. His info for 2017 is at http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEgoogle/SEgoogle2001/SE2017Aug21Tgoogle.html .
Just for Fun
At our age you might think that there isn't anything new under the Sun left to experience. Well, I bet I can name one and you have to be under the Sun to experience it -- a TOTAL Eclipse of the Sun.
It is an awesome experience that I can't put into words adequately. Photos don't capture the experience of the Sun disappearing at mid-day It's not just a visual experience. An eclipse of the Moon or a partial eclipse of the Sun is fun, but a TOTAL eclipse of the Sun evokes deep sensations about the Sun and human existence.
The chance that you've seen one is small because the Moon's shadow forms a narrow track across the Earth and you aren't likely to be included.. Thirty miles away and you don't get the full experience. In 2017 those right places are along a line that crosses the USA and I urge you to be at one of those places at the right time. I'll give you further advice as the next two years roll by (whether you want it or not).