The Shadow of the Eclipse Approaches

What Will YOU Do For the Eclipse?

total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse, November 2012. Copyright 2012 Carolyn Collins Petersen.

You may have heard about the upcoming total solar eclipse.

Let me put that another way: there’s no way you haven’t heard about the upcoming solar eclipse set to cross the U.S. in just over a month’s time. Every astronomy publication worth its solar filters is blatting around about it. I can’t look on Facebook or Twitter without seeing a reference to Yet Another Article on How to Safely View the Eclipse and “Top Ten Places to View an Eclipse” and so on. One astro-related magazine that we get is going totally bonkers in coverage for the event. I guess will help sell issues but the drama is overdone.

In any case, the word is out: there’s an eclipse. So, what do you do?

Eclipse Hype Raises Prices

Make no mistake about it: a total solar eclipse is an amazing thing to view. I’ve been to six (this will be my 7th), seen five and marveled at how very cool they looked. And, if you CAN get to a place to watch it, please do. You won’t regret it.

What you MAY regret is waiting too long to get hotel reservations or finding a place to watch it from safely. Like every good capitalist enterprise, hotels are charging out the wazoo for a room. Many are requiring multiple-night stays. I’ve read stories of places in Oregon and elsewhere charging outrageous amounts to people who simply want to camp. Sure, there are costs involved in hosting people to camp, but are they suddenly higher just for a couple of nights? Or, is there a bit of gouging going on?

I was talking to a relative last weekend who lives in Wyoming. It’s a state of about a half million residents that will be inundated by perhaps a million people for the eclipse. Her friend runs a state park and realized that their sleepy town will need to clean up after people who will likely leave their trash lying around after the event. So, they’re charging a small fee for camping to pay for the cleanup. Fair enough — nobody should work to clean up after others for free. But, the random campgrounds that are suddenly jacking rates up to hotel-room prices (and higher) are taking advantage. Too bad for them; the reputation is something you can only squander once.

In any case, don’t let this scare you away. Hit the road and treat yourself to the event. Just be aware there will be stresses on the system. Be prepared for higher prices for goods and services due to increased demand for them. And, be ready for traffic congestion. Lots of people will be heading to see it, too.

Also, make sure you’re going to the zone of totality, where you will experience the deepest eclipse. If you want to know where the zone of totality is, check out the maps at NASA’s very complete eclipse website.  Plan ahead. Bring your own food, water, even a roll of TP if you have to. Just don’t miss the event and the chance to watch a very cool natural phenomenon!

Old Tales about Eclipses

I’ve also been seeing a lot of strange suggestions by way of “advice” for watching an eclipse (like “cheaping out” by using welder’s glass, using CDs, etc. to shield your eyes). Also, there’s some hype about photographing the event. And, there are stories everywhere about getting to the zone of totality. Here’s what you need to know:

1) you only need your eyes to watch an eclipse. Use them in a safe place — like a parking lot or a park, not the middle of a highway;

eclipse glasses

Eclipse glasses are the “go to” fashion need for every gazer! Copyright 2012 Carolyn Collins Petersen

2) observers need to wear eclipse glasses (libraries are giving them away) that will protect your eyes during the partial phases (that is, when the Sun isn’t completely covered by the Moon). Once totality starts, you take off the glasses and look at the Sun safely for about 2.5 minutes. Then, you put them back on, because the Moon will move on, and the Sun will suddenly be uncovered. Not acceptable for viewing: welder’s glass, sunglasses, CDs, tin foil, or other substitutes. They’re your eyes, and we think you probably want to do the best you can to protect them. So, get eclipse viewers. Accept no substitutes. And don’t directly at the Sun without protection, until totality. See below.
3) If you want to take pictures, you can probably safely do so with your smartphone, although it won’t look too great. If you’re not an eclipse photo aficionado, your best bet is just to watch and enjoy. Don’t fiddle with a camera if you don’t have to.
4) Okay, so if you want to do photography and know what you’re doing, check out my friend Jerry Lodriguss’s site for all kinds of good tips and hints.
5) Don’t buy into any hype about how the eclipse will affect your chakras, karma, cosmic energies, and other such nonsense. It’s all designed to mystify something that’s pretty simple to understand.

What’s a Total Solar Eclipse?








Watch this movie. It gives you a good idea of what the mechanics of a solar eclipse. So, a total solar eclipse is pretty simple to understand from a mechanical viewpoint. It happens when the Moon moves in its orbit between us and the Sun. It just so happens that the Moon will be at a distance of about 227,000 miles from Earth. At that distance, it’s just big enough to hide the disk of the Sun from us for about 2.5 minutes during totality. The Moon casts a shadow onto Earth’s surface.  If you’re in the deepest part of the shadow (the zone of totality), you’ll see the Sun become completely eclipsed as the shadow sweeps past.

The actual eclipse takes about three hours as the Moon moves in its orbit around Earth. The moment the Moon first “touches” the Sun’s disk is called “First Contact”. That’s the beginning of the eclipse. From there, the Moon slowly slides between the Sun and Earth. While you can’t look directly at the Sun at that time, you can watch over the next hour or so, as more and more of the Sun is covered. Also, look around you and watch as the ambient light at your location changes. It’ll slowly take on a twilight aspect. Shadows become sharper.

Pro tip: if you have trees nearby, look at shadows of leaves as the Sun shines through. They’ll start to take on the shape of the Sun. This is the same concept as shining the Sun through a telescope and projecting the light through the eyepiece onto a piece of paper. What you’ll see projected onto the paper is a slowly disappearing slice of the Sun. In fact, doing that is a very safe way to look at an eclipse. It’s the projection method. (NEVER LOOK THROUGH THE EYEPIECE OF A TELESCOPE OR THROUGH BINOCULARS AT THE SUN UNLESS YOU HAVE A SPECIFIC SOLAR FILTER ON YOUR TELESCOPE!!!!!)

The Eclipse Continues

eclipse view

The relative positions of the Sun, Moon, planets on August 21, 2017 during eclipse totality in parts of the U.S. Click for a larger view.

Okay, so, the eclipse booms along and suddenly the Sun completely disappears. That’s called “Second Contact” and is the beginning of a very brief period of about 2.5 minutes where you can directly observe the Sun. Do it. You might see streamers of the ghostly white corona radiating out from the Sun. You might also see reddish outbursts on the edge — those are called prominences. Don’t forget to look around you and see how dark the atmosphere is. Also, you probably can’t miss all the yelling and screaming and laughter from the people around you. Animals may get in on the act, too. It’s a unique few minutes; savor it the sights, sounds, and feels. But, don’t get too comfortable because totality comes to an end all too soon. Before it does, look around to see if you can spot Mars, Mercury, and Venus.

When the Moon starts to reveal more of the Sun, that’s “Third Contact” and its time to get those eclipse glasses back on. Don’t stop looking though; you still have an hour to watch as the Moon slips away and slowly uncovers the entire surface. When it completely clears the Sun, that’s “Fourth Contact”, and the eclipse is over. You will, of course, have kept your eclipse shades on and did NOT LOOK THROUGH A TELESCOPE AT THE SUN (unless you KNOW it has a safe viewing solar filter).

There’s a lot more to the eclipse viewing experience and I recommend the American Astronomical Society’s page about what you’ll see, hear, and feel during the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse.

Strange Things That People Believe about an Eclipse

A few years ago I was headed to see an eclipse and mentioned it to a person I met at a tourist spot. She immediately went into a whole tirade about how it would mess with my cosmic aura. She wanted me to wave some burning sage around over my head during totality. I’m sure that there’s some spiritual thing associated with that, but she never really explained it, just urged me to smudge the spirits away.  I noped my way outta that one.

Another person I met while standing in line at the airport one year told me that as a kid, he and his family always hid inside during eclipses to keep the bad ghosts away. I couldn’t imagine missing something so spectacular due to such a misguided “belief”. But, they’re out there, along with the people who think that setting off fireworks during eclipses is a thing. It’s really a very natural phenomenon, and of course, gurus, shamans, and others who want to put their mystical interpretations on it. But, they shouldn’t keep you from enjoying this very cool show courtesy of the Sun and Moon.

The best thing to do about an eclipse is enjoy it. We all live under the laws of orbital mechanics, but it’s not very often we get to see them in action quite so dramatically.

Get out there if you can. And, when you do, enjoy! It’s a perk of living on a planet, with a star, and a Moon.

Things that Block Light

Eclipses and Transits and More Eclipses, Oh My

A partial phase of the annular eclipse, shot through solar filter material using a Sony Cybershot. Copyright 2012 Carolyn Collins Petersen.

It’s been a banner couple of weeks for interesting celestial events. First, like many folks, I got to see the annular eclipse of the Sun on May 20th.  We went to southern Utah to get a clear view of the Moon slipping between Earth and the Sun and almost (but  not quite) blocking out all the sunlight. What we saw was a pretty amazing “ring” of light.  I took a few pictures, like the one here, but mostly I just sat and watched it.

We’ve chased a few eclipses now (we’re four for six), so instead of running around and trying to get the best pictures and video, we like to sit and watch. Oh, we did do some automated photography — just let the camera and timer do all the work.  But, mostly we watched. And were rewarded with a cool view that doesn’t come along very often.

In the national park where we viewed (Kolob Canyon, part of Zion National Park), we talked with various people who had driven over from California or Las Vegas or Colorado, and everyone seemed excited about the eclipse.  There were a few telescopes and cameras with solar filters set up, and a fair number of people using the pinhole projection method of viewing the eclipse. So, I was gratified to see that the campaign of “NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROTECTION” was paying off.  It’s common sense, but still, in the heat of an eclipse sometimes even seasoned veterans forget the rule and take a peek, risking their eyesight forever.

The next big event is the Transit of Venus, which occurs June 5/6 (date depends on where you live), when Venus’s orbit will take it across the face of the Sun for several hours.  These don’t occur very often; they happen in pairs every hundred or so years, so the next one after this one will be in the year 2117.  If you’re inclined to take a look, the same rules apply: don’t look directly at the Sun, use proper filters (NOT SUNGLASSES), and enjoy!  There’s a ton of information out there about the transit, so if you want to know more about it, go here, or  here. I even talk about it in my monthly edition of “Our Night Sky” for Astrocast.TV, which you can watch below.

Finally, there’s a little bit of a lunar eclipse occurring tomorrow June 4th.  The best places for viewing this eclipse will be in and near the Pacific Ocean, according to the folks at  However, people in the Americas will see part of it, as will people in eastern Asia.  If you want to watch as part of the Moon slips through Earth’s shadow, get more information at the link above.

It’s kinda cool that three events that are the result of sunlight being blocked by celestial objects are occurring so close together. There’s nothing magical about it, but there is something fascinating to watch, so check out the transit and the eclipse (if they’re visible where you live).  Participate in observing!  That’s what astronomy’s all about!