Next month, a total solar eclipse will occur on Monday, August 21 and will be visible within a band across the entire contiguous United States. The last time this coast-to-coast phenomenon occurred was in 1918 and most of us sure weren’t around. It’s so exciting, they’re calling it the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. Here’s what it’s all about for those of us a bit rusty on what this all means.
What is a solar eclipse? How is it different from a lunar eclipse?
A solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the sun and earth, blocking out the sun’s rays and casting a shadow on parts of the earth. Some solar eclipses are total (when the moon completely covers the sun) and others are partial (when the moon partially covers the sun). With the moon and earth continually moving, the eclipse moves from location to location. On August 21, the eclipse will be visible across the U.S., but will only be a total eclipse on a central path from the west coast to the east coast.
A lunar eclipse is when the sun, earth and moon are completely aligned in a straight line and the earth is blocking any direct sunlight from reaching the moon. It only happens when the moon is full. With the sun behind the earth, the sun’s rays cast earth’s shadow on the moon. This shadow covers the entire moon and causes a total lunar eclipse. You can still see the moon and it appears red.
Why is this a big deal?
Solar eclipses are more rare than lunar eclipses because a solar eclipse is only visible from a limited path on earth, whereas a lunar eclipse is visible from every location on the night-side of earth while it lasts. The eclipse on August 21 is also a total solar eclipse that will darken skies from coast to coast and that’s a big deal — from sea to shining sea.
Will I be able to see the solar eclipse?
If you live in the U.S. you will either experience a total solar eclipse or partial solar eclipse, depending on where you live relative to a belt running from Oregon to South Carolina. The total eclipse band will pass through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Those outside the band will see a partial eclipse, awesome in itself.
What time will this occur?
The partial eclipse will happen first and will slowly transition to totality for those living in the path. A partial eclipse will begin around 9 am at the Oregon coast, with the total eclipse visible from Oregon around 10:15 am. But don’t go inside for a quick cup of coffee, because the total eclipse will only last a couple of minutes and, if you live just outside the path, it may last only several seconds.
You can enter your location in this handy tool by Time and Date AS and it will tell you what type of eclipse you’ll witness, beginning and ending times, and the maximum view you’ll see. Be sure to play the animation that shows what the eclipse will look like near the maximum point. Fascinating!
Can I look at it without damaging my eyes?
Remember when we were kids and our parents told us to never look directly into the sun? Heed that advice. The only time it’s safe to look at the eclipse with the naked eye is when the sun is totally covered by the moon. Looking directly into the sun without proper eye protection can cause serious eye damage or blindness. According to NASA, you must wear eclipse glasses or use eclipse viewing cards to safely view the sun. These lenses are made from special-purpose solar filters that are thousands times darker than your sunglasses. Eclipse glasses must meet an international standard, so look for glasses that are ISO certified. NASA provides additional information on safe viewing, including a list of five companies that meet the standards for eclipse glasses.
What should I do now?
Get excited! Share this blog post, plan a party, put up posters, order your eclipse glasses, wear a t-shirt, read a book on this celestial event — this is a big deal! I am reading Sun Moon Earth by Dr. Tyler Nordgren and discovered that not only is he an author and professor of physics and astronomy, he’s a talented artist and astronomer. My office wall is now displaying one of his posters as we count the days to August 21.
Where can I get additional information?
NASA is a decent resource for general information and dates. The American Astronomical Society provide a more user-friendly website with history, resources, incredible images and videos, and events surrounding this big day. The AAS even provides guidance on how to photograph the eclipse, with necessary safety information.
Happy and safe viewing!
Feature photo credit to Robert S. Slobins from Australia in 2012. North of 52 receives no compensation for referenced products.
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