EYES TO THE SKY: Chasing North America’s upcoming solar eclipseMore Info
April 18 – May 1, 2016
A total eclipse of the sun is “the most spectacular, awe-inspiring sight in all of nature. Once seen, it can never be forgotten.” — Fred Espenek, NASA’s “Mr. Eclipse”
My education about the upcoming total eclipse of the sun took a steep upswing in a packed auditorium at the recent Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF). One of my heroes, astrophysicist Fred Espenek – who earned the title “Mr. Eclipse” when at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) — gave a short course at NEAF in the when, where, and, just as important, the weather of the event. Then, in the vestibule between sessions, I had a chance encounter with another luminary, Joe Rao, and learned up close about how fervent astronomy enthusiasts are when strategizing to assure a spot from which to see a solar eclipse. Many have already made arrangements for 2017.
Those who have traveled the world to witness a total eclipse of the sun are taking a scientific approach to the challenge of locating a front seat for this eclipse that will be closer to home. In Fred Espenek’s words, quoted from his website:
“On August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the Sun will be visible from the contiguous United States for the first time since 1979. The track of the Moon’s umbral shadow begins in the Pacific Ocean and crosses the nation from west to east through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. Inside the 70-mile-wide path of totality, the Moon will completely cover the Sun as the landscape is plunged into an eerie twilight and the Sun’s glorious corona is revealed for nearly 3 minutes. Outside the narrow shadow track, a partial eclipse will be visible from all of North America.”
Espenek made it clear that a partial eclipse offers nothing like witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. He attempted to explain, “It’s not real. But it is. Like being in a special effects movie. Something very primal; makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up…..” Flowers begin to close as at night; night insects and birds sing and stars appear in the middle of the day.
With the path of the eclipse overlaid on a map of the United States on a big screen, Mr. Eclipse guided the audience through the whole trajectory of the total eclipse from the coast of Oregon to the coast of South Carolina, describing how geography and time of day shape weather predictions – weather being the main variable in planning where to view the momentous event. Espenek, who has traveled all over the globe to see 27 eclipses and witnessed 20 of them, said he wouldn’t be deciding on where to go until very close to the eclipse, “Drive to get there, even 500 miles, it will be worth it.”
Joe Rao, a broadcast meteorologist, astronomy writer and lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium, has been a participant in eclipse tours to exotic places where the event is seen high above the clouds aboard chartered airplanes. When I greeted Rao at NEAF, someone else came up to speak to him and, in passing, described that he was about to book a reservation at a motel near Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the location that will experience the longest period of totality of any city. “I’ll go from there if I have to,” said the gentleman, “all I have to lose is the cost of a reservation.”
Animation of 2017 partial eclipse as it will be seen from Massachusetts: https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/in/usa/boston?iso=20170821
Must read solar eclipse page: https://mreclipse.com/MrEclipse.html#Sun
Books by Fred Espenek:
“Eclipse Bulletin: Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 August 21:” https://astropixels.com/pubs/TSE2017.html
“Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017:” https://astropixels.com/pubs/Atlas2017.html
“Total Eclipse or Bust! A Family Road Trip:” https://astropixels.com/pubs/TEOB.html