Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Countdown Is On For The Great American Eclipse

My photo of the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979. Chris Gainor photo
A year from now the United States will be enjoying a magnificent astronomical event - a total solar eclipse. 

While these types of eclipses generally occur about every 18 months, they only take place over a narrow band of territory a little more than 100 km wide. And in recent years, total solar eclipses - where the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun and covers all of it - have only occurred in distant parts of the world.

On August 21, 2017, the band of the total eclipse will cross the United States starting on the Oregon Coast and then moving east - through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. It will be visible from Casper, Wyoming; Kansas City, Kansas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Nashville, Tennessee, amongst other cities.

The period of totality will last up to two minutes 42 seconds, depending on where the observer is. While the usual precautions are needed while watching the partial phases of the eclipse, the sky goes dark and viewers can look directly at the fully eclipsed sun during that all-too-brief period of totality.

Partial solar eclipses can often be seen because they are visible over much of the Earth when they take place. On the day of this total eclipse in the U.S., viewers all over Canada will be able to watch the Moon cover much but not all of the Sun, and proper shielding will be needed.

But total solar eclipses are so rare and so dramatic that many astronomers travel thousands of miles to view them.  

I have only seen one - the last one in North America, which took place on February 26, 1979. It passed over Oregon and then up into Manitoba, including Winnipeg. I and a few friends were waiting to see it in Oak Point, Manitoba, on the centre line of the eclipse, where totality was longest. 

For the short period of totality, the sky went dark and where the Sun had been, one saw the strange and eerie sight of the Moon’s black disc covering the Sun, surrounded by the streamers of the Sun’s corona. Many photos have been taken of total eclipses, but there is no substitute for seeing one in person. A friend of mine who was not interested in astronomy but came along anyway was shaking at the end of it.

Many astronomers had travelled to Manitoba to see the eclipse, and the night before, the Elks Club in Lundar, Manitoba, threw a memorable town celebration for the visitors, including a great roast beef dinner, skits and even some NASA films - and the films were a draw because this was before video recorders were widely available.

So when what is already being called the Great American Eclipse takes place next year, I plan to be in the path of totality. Watch this space a year from now for my report. 

And for those who miss that eclipse, another total solar eclipse will take place in North America on April 8, 2024. This time, the path of totality goes through Mexico and then Texas, heading northeast to Ohio and other northern states. It will be visible in parts of southern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. I hope to see that one, too!

If you are interested in seeing next year’s total solar eclipse, there is a great deal of information already available online.

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