Friday, March 20 marks not just the Vernal Equinox but also a total solar eclipse. This best spectacle in all of nature can only be seen along a narrow path that skirts past Iceland, passes over the remote Faeroe Islands of Scotland and then curves upward to the North Pole. Our tour company, Specialty Tours, long ago decided to pass on this event because the chances for cloudy weather are just too high. But at Slooh, the online observatory, we have sent a team to transmit live images of the eclipsed Sun just in case they can find a hole in the clouds.
However, just between you and me, watching a solar totality on a computer screen is like reading a description of warm tropical waters as opposed to diving in. Computers are great, but some things in life must be experienced in person.
A bright exploding meteor or rare brilliant comet invokes gasps in person, but looks only so-so on a screen. So it’s good that thousands of people are each spending thousands of dollars trying to see Friday’s total eclipse. I hope they succeed. But whether they do or not, be advised that for the first time in 38 years, a solar totality is coming here to the mainland US. Next year I’ll talk about the narrow path of totality in detail, and the weather prospects along the entire coast-to-coast ribbon of darkness where the spectacle will unfold on August 21, 2017 – and even where our group will be, in case you’d like to tag along.
This brings up a larger question: How to get the Biggest Bang for the buck, when it comes to natural spectacles. After a solar totality, second-best in the “mindblowing” department is the aurora borealis. We get great ones right here, although it is now 14 years since the last truly spectacular apparition of the Northern Lights in our region. At the moment, I’m in central Alaska leading a group to see them there.
Third-best is a “Great Comet” – and these appear every 15 to 20 years on average. After the rare double whammy that we had in 1996 and 1997, with Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, we’ve waited our full usual no-comet interval, thanks to ISON proving to be a piece of vomit in 2013. Right now, none is in sight. A supercomet is typically discovered a few months to even a full year before it maximally brightens, so it doesn’t look as if 2015 will be our year.
A great meteor shower is a distant fourth on the cosmic hit parade. We had our best in the predawn hours of November 18, 2001, and I know that a number of you braved the cold post-midnight darkness and took advantage of cloudless skies, and indeed saw the best meteor display of your life. Six brilliant green shooting stars per minute, most with lingering trails: unforgettable.
This year, though not in that league, the famous summer Perseid shower will perform for two nights under ideal moonless conditions. So mark the nights of August 11 and 12 on your calendar, and expect a meteor a minute after midnight, both nights.
As for places to go, it’s wonderfully starry in the Adirondacks and especially away from towns in Montana, Wyoming and the American Southwest. My favorites, though, are some secret spots in Chile, and I hope that some of you join us at Specialty Tours. (Sneaking in that plug is obnoxious, but I can’t help it. Some readers have come along in recent years, and it’s just too cool.) However, when all is said and done, our entire region is surrounded by pristine skies and lovely stars, and the farthest that you must drive is a mere half-hour if you head in the right direction.
Five years ago, the world’s population passed a milestone: More people now live in cities than in rural areas. Astounding views of the universe are becoming scarcer – but not for us. Whether you wish to spend a fortune or not one penny, the universe awaits. And you know it is patient.