As you are firming up your summer plans, you may want to pencil in the total solar eclipse on August 21. Dubbed the “Great American Eclipse,” it is not just the first total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous United States since February 26, 1979, but also the first that can be seen across the country, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, in almost a century. The last time the celestial phenomenon was experienced coast-to-coast was on June 8, 1918!
The eclipse’s narrow 70-mile-wide path of totality will begin at Lincoln Beach, OR at 10:16 AM PDT. Over the next hour and a half, it will traverse through the rest of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. The historic event will end in Charleston, SC at 2:46 PM EDT.
Those able to experience the total eclipse can expect to see a surreal darkness creep towards and over them as the moon positions itself perfectly between the sun and the Earth. Once the sun is completely concealed, they will witness a breathtaking sight of its corona, or atmosphere, and bright stars during the middle of the day. While the total eclipse will only last a few minutes, partial eclipses will continue for over an hour, as the moon moves in and out of the star’s path creating a number beautiful of crescents during the process.
If you aren’t among the millions fortunate enough to live under or close to the total eclipse’s path, don’t fret: everyone in the continental United States and some areas of South America, Africa, and Europe will be able to see a partial solar eclipse. NASA TV will also livestream the event for those who can’t view it in person or encounter inclement weather.
To commemorate the rare occasion, people across the country are organizing massive festivals where attendees can camp under the stars, observe the eclipse, hear science lectures, and enjoy live entertainment. Even the US Postal Service is getting into the spirit with a unique stamp. Scheduled for release on June 20, or summer solstice, the ‘Total Eclipse of the Sun Forever’ stamp is covered with a special ink that transforms the Eclipse into an image of the moon from the heat of a finger or thumb. The best part is the image reverts to the eclipse once the stamp cools!
A solar eclipse occurs when a new moon gets in between the sun and the Earth. We do not experience a total solar eclipse every time this happens because the moon’s elliptical orbit causes its distance from Earth to vary between 221,500 to 252,000 miles. For a total eclipse to occur, the moon has to be at its closest orbit distance (so it appears larger than the sun), and in perfect alignment with the Earth and the sun.
Fleeting as they are, total solar eclipses are very important to scientists. It gives them an opportunity to conduct experiments to solve mysteries like why the sun is so hot or the reason for the unpredictable, and often dangerous, solar flames that emanate from its surface.
Solar eclipses have to be observed through special glasses because the sun emits intense infrared and ultraviolet radiation rays which can result in permanent eye damage or even blindness. Also, if you are among the 25 million lucky people who live in the vicinity of the total eclipse’s path, be sure to give yourself enough time to get to your viewing destination. NASA predicts that eagerness to view this rare event will result in one of the worst traffic days in recent history. In case you miss the ‘Great American Eclipse Of 2017’, you will be able to catch another in a mere seven years, on April 8, 2024. This one too will be visible across the country — all the way from Texas to Maine!