This year may bring your life’s most astonishing experience. For the first time in nearly four decades, a total solar eclipse sweeps across the mainland US. Most backyard astronomers have never seen one. No surprise; they’re rare and expensive. For any spot on Earth, totality happens once every 360 years on average. Some places, like Los Angeles, will wait more than a millennium.
Everyone has seen photos. The image of a black Moon surrounded by the solar corona is familiar. But is it merely a lovely natural scene along the lines of a lunar eclipse, a nice comet or beavers building a dam? Only when viewing it in person does the observer realize that this is the most wondrous event in his or her entire life.
The eye perceives gorgeous detail that the camera can’t capture. But beyond the visual sight is a feeling, a vibe. I’ve only met only one couple whose report was that it was lovely, but they wouldn’t feel the need to travel to see one again. Everyone else – hundreds over these many decades – has said that it was the most amazing thing they’d ever experienced.
I’m talking about this now, instead of in August, to encourage everyone to plan a journey into totality’s narrow path. A partial eclipse will temptingly appear over every backyard in the US. You might imagine that a deep partial will be “good enough,” since the Sun will be 75 percent blocked as seen from Kingston, Woodstock or New Paltz. A stay-at-home eclipse party might certainly sound attractive.
Don’t do it. Make “Totality or Nothing” your mantra on August 21. Check out a web totality map (search: NASA total solar eclipse August 21), decide where you’ll be, then watch the weather as the date approaches. It’ll all work out, even if you end up observing from a highway shoulder.
Our Eclipse Tour, where we had space for 90 people, has long been sold out. You could try some other tour company, or just drive. But be sure that you’re somewhere in the middle half of the eclipse track, not along the fringe, where the totality will be shorter. Also, avoid the Pacific Northwest, where there’s a good chance of clouds. And avoid the Southeastern states, where it’ll be an afternoon event with high humidity and an enhanced chance of clouds. Of course, if you have friends or relatives or Nashville, where it’ll be total, keep your fingers crossed and go for it!
I’ve been the eclipse astronomer for seven previous totalities, in places like northeastern Australia, Libya and Bengal. People pay thousands to position themselves in the Moon’s shadow. And now that shadow comes to our own country, within driving range!
Don’t imagine that this is an event like a lunar eclipse, a bright conjunction, a comet or a rich meteor shower. And don’t recall the partial eclipses that you’ve seen, all of which required eye protection. None of those are in the same league.
Only solar totality makes people weep, and makes animals go nuts. This alone has an impact and glory that is life-altering. Mark August 21 on the calendar and see it. You don’t need equipment, other than cheap shade number 12 or 14 welders’ goggles for $3, for viewing the partial phase that precedes totality. When totality arrives, you look at it straight on – no equipment needed. You can even view it through binoculars. Totally safe.
As an eclipse astronomer for 47 years, allow me to offer a few tips. First, don’t use up those two precious minutes fiddling with your camera. Getting a good image requires time-consuming exposure bracketing. You sure you want to do that? I strongly suggest that you sacrifice no more than half the eclipse to the process. Then stop twirling that f/stop dial and look up.
Second, think about your soundtrack. Many enjoy the company of a crowd, and to hear people shouting excited commentary like, “Ooh, look at those prominences on the bottom!” Me, I regard totality as a sacred event that demands silence. I never lecture during an eclipse, and always find a spot far away from the group. There’s no right or wrong; but decide in advance, because you won’t get a do-over.
When it’s over, the magical feeling quickly subsides. You want it back, but you can’t have it. Logic and memory cannot fully recapture the otherworldly experience; it’s present only while totality unfolds – a good reason not to squander a single second. So check out the narrow path of the Moon’s shadow, and start making plans for where you’ll be on August 21.
Statistically, the clearest regions are in the middle of the track, from eastern Idaho through Wyoming to southern Illinois. You could stay over in St. Louis and then simply drive south in a rented car that morning and pull into any small town. Watch from a park, or the local library’s lawn, or even a highway shoulder.
After this one, there will be totalities in 2019 and 2020 in southern Chile and Argentina, and then the US will get another on April 8, 2024. Although we’ve waited 38 years for a totality anywhere in the mainland US, that 2024 event will be visible just seven years later, and that one happens almost in our neighborhood: along a path from Buffalo through Rochester and Syracuse to Burlington, Vermont.
The time has come. You must not let your lifetime expire without seeing a total eclipse of the Sun.