The total solar eclipse on August 21 will be the first time in 99 years that one will traverse the US from coast to coast. But, it can also be dangerous to view. Here's how to watch safely.
People have long been fascinated with solar eclipses, with popular folklore ranging from Viking sky wolves to Korean fire dogs to explain why the sun suddenly disappears during the middle of the day. On August 21, a total solar eclipse will be seen across a 70-mile swatch of the US, and it's fueling an eclipse-viewing mania since it will be the first total solar eclipse to travel from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean since 1918. And it's the first time a total solar eclipse has occurred exclusively in the US since 1778.
Every single state in the US will experience at least a partial eclipse on August 21. But for some states such as Hawaii—where only about 18% of the sun will be blocked by the moon—it won't be nearly as noticeable as in the 14 states in the continental US that will experience a total solar eclipse, with the moon completely obscuring the sun for a brief period.
The total eclipse will last as long as 2 minutes, 40.2 seconds in Carbondale, IL, which will lay claim to the longest duration of a total solar eclipse that day. Hopkinsville, KY will experience the most impressive solar eclipse, with a 2 minute, 40.1 second duration, and the sun, moon, and earth lining up the most precisely during the astronomical event.
However, the eclipse can be dangerous to view with the naked eye and it can even damage camera equipment. So, for all of the technologists, citizen scientists, and sci-fi lovers in our audience, we've got some practical advice and safety tips to share.
When to watch the eclipse
This eclipse traverses the US, beginning in Oregon at 10:15 am PDT (1:15 pm EDT) and ending in South Carolina 94 minutes later at 2:49 pm EDT (11:49 am PDT). The cross-country path means that about 200 million people, a little less than two-thirds of the US population, live within a one-day's drive of the path of totality, according to NASA.
Weather permitting, this means that millions of people will be able to see a total solar eclipse, many for the first, and possibly only, time in their lives. The last total solar eclipse to appear in the continental US was in 1979.
There are numerous charts available online to help people find the precise time that a solar eclipse will appear in a particular city. NASA has created an interactive map to find eclipse times, and eclipse2017.org has also created a useful resource with precise times.
Connectivity will be a concern
A massive influx of people are expected to descend upon the communities where totality will be seen, and AT&T is placing 8-10 Cell on Wheels (COWs) and one Cell on Light Truck (COLT) in towns along the totality band. Many of the areas are rural, with small populations, and visitors will likely have trouble with connectivity on their mobile devices. The COWs are typically used for high-density crowds such as those seen at the Super Bowl and other big-scale events.
"Opportunities like this don't come around very often. You essentially have a 70-mile wide band traveling on the diagonal for 3,000 miles across the country," explained Paula Doublin, assistant vice president of construction and engineering for AT&T's Antenna Solutions Group. "These small towns along the center line are literally going into a festival season that is starting as early as the Wednesday before and will continue through the 21st and into the 22nd and the 23rd."
Some of the towns will receive up to a 160% boost in capacity for what they normally can provide. The cities where AT&T will provide added capacity are: Madras, OR; Idaho Falls, ID; Glendo Reservoir at Glendo State Park in WY; St. Joseph, MO; Columbia, MO; Owensville, MO; Washington, MO; Carbondale, IL; Hopkinsville, KY.
"Those are the ones that we've announced. We continue to look all along the center line and then down into the Carolinas," Doublin said.
Doublin, a Missouri native, said she plans to experience the total eclipse from Cape Girardeau in her home state. She experienced a 98% totality solar eclipse in Africa several years ago, but this will be her first time seeing a total solar eclipse.
She has advice for anyone watching this year's eclipse. "One of the things that I kind of learned from the last time was that we were so busy trying to shoot pictures of it and not being in the [moment]. We had special glasses and all of that, but we were not viewing it. We were more interested in shooting it for history."
SEE: Video: How to watch the solar eclipse (TechRepublic)
For this eclipse, she said, "I'm going to take all the necessary safety precautions, and I'm going to watch this one. All of my electronics and devices will be going and capturing as well, but this kid is going to watch this one. These things just don't come around very often."
There will be another total solar eclipse in the eastern US in 2024, so this year's experience will be good practice for the next one, Doublin pointed out.
Verizon is planning to deploy three COWs for the eclipse, with one in Bend, OR, another near the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Madras, OR, and one in Hopkinsville, KY, according to a Verizon spokesperson.
Where to watch the eclipse
The states that are along the path of totality are Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Figuring out where to view the eclipse is a personal choice, but know that many hotels and campgrounds throughout the area of totality filled up months ago. Some campgrounds have opened up acreage within nearby fields for rustic camping without water and electric hookups.
There is a party atmosphere surrounding the eclipse, with two Kentucky distilleries, MB Roland and Casey Jones, offering camping onsite through the weekend, along with bourbon and live music. Across the country in Oregon, Eola Hills winery is offering a similar experience with RV and tent camping.
But the best last-minute option for anyone within driving distance of totality, and no relatives in the area to barge in on, is to opt for renting a parking space during the day, with access to bathrooms. Throughout the US, universities, schools, and churches have opened up their parking lots for a small fee often between $25-$50 for use of their facilities for the day.
For those unable to see the total eclipse in person, there will be live streaming via a NASA TV broadcast on August 21, from 1-4 pm EDT. This will include images from the two NASA WB-57 jets that will be chasing the solar eclipse across the sky to capture images for research of the sun and Mercury. It will also offer live streams from more than 50 high-altitude balloons launched from around the country as part of a project at Montana State University.
The Weather Channel will use a blend of augmented and mixed reality to take viewers inside the eclipse. Digital artists will create AR renderings of the sun and show the science behind the event and explain the phenomenon, said Gary Hood, manager of graphic system implementation at The Weather Channel.
In Carbondale, IL, NASA will offer a 4.5 hour live telecast of the eclipse from the campus of Southern Illinois University (SIU). There will be scientist interviews, a balloon launch, and high-resolution sun imagery in various wavelengths.
There are many activities happening on campus at SIU, since the area is near the longest duration point of the eclipse, at 2 minutes, 40.2 seconds, starting at 1:21 pm EDT.
Bob Baer, specialist, SIU physics department and co-chair of the SIU Eclipse Steering Committee, said that there are still tickets available for Saluki Stadium, where approximately 14,000 to 15,000 people will be able to view the eclipse. There is also a Comic-Con taking place to entertain visitors, and an astronomy, science and technology expo. The NASA EDGE megacast facility will also be in the midst of the campus, in a shipping container turned into a TV studio.
Baer said the eclipse has increased interest in astronomy across the country, with his local astronomy group going from 12-15 members to about 50, and west coast astronomy clubs reporting similar increases.
"This eclipse practically splits the country in half, so we could have hardly gotten an eclipse that covers more states than this one. Everybody from coast to coast has a chance to get to totality and see it," Baer said. "Everybody is excited about this one."
How to safely view an eclipse
Safety is crucial when viewing an eclipse. A total solar eclipse is one of the most stunning and beautiful sights in nature, and it's also the only form of astronomy that can be dangerous if not viewed properly. It takes only a moment to burn a hole in your retina and go blind. And remember, you cannot look through a camera lens to photograph the eclipse unless the camera is equipped with a solar filter. The same goes with an unfiltered telescope. Otherwise, you will damage your eyes the same as if you looked directly at the sun. You can also damage your camera equipment if it is unfiltered.
The only safe time to look at an eclipse is when it's in totality. The rays of the sun even 10 seconds before or 10 seconds after totality could cause blindness if special glasses aren't worn. And since the period of totality lasts for barely over two minutes, and less at some locations, most of the viewing period will be when it's not safe to look directly at the sun.
NASA has created a website dedicated to viewing the solar eclipse safely. Regular sunglasses do not protect your eyes during a solar eclipse. Many institutions such as libraries are providing free eclipse glasses to the public, and some local astronomy groups are providing free glasses to people who attend solar eclipse seminars.
Pinhole projectors have long been a favorite of schoolchildren viewing an eclipse. NASA has provided a link to printable pinhole projectors.
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