If you’re looking for something to remind you of our tiny place in an infinite universe, a total solar eclipse is just the thing.
A total solar eclipse, or a “totality,” happens when the shape of the moon entirely covers the shape of the sun in the sky, casting a huge shadow. For those in the path of the totality, the only light visible will be the sun’s outer atmosphere, or the corona, which can sometimes look like sparkling ribbons of light curling out from behind the shadow. Quite a sight, huh?
The eclipse occurs as the celestial orbits happen to cross each other. The moon is actually much smaller than the sun, but it orbits an average of 239,000 miles from Earth (to the sun’s 92.96 million miles), which makes it look the same size as the sun from our perspective. They line up about once every 18 months, but Monday, August 21 will be the first time in 38 years they’re lining up over the United States.
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WHERE TO SEE IT
It’s going across the U.S.—but on a specific path. The totality is predicted to begin at 10:16 a.m. PDT on Monday, August 21st in Lincoln City, Oregon, and end in Charleston, SC at 2:48pm EDT. It will pass as a totality through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. When the eclipse passes through Illinois, the sun will be completely covered for almost 3 minutes long.
Outside the path of totality, skywatchers in the continental U.S. and other nearby areas will see a partial solar eclipse. You can click on your location in NASA’s neat interactive map and find out at what time you’ll see the maximum amount of eclipse for your area. NASA has plenty of guidance on everything you need to know about the eclipse here, as well as an animated map of what the moon’s shadow is going to look like as it blocks the sun.
On August 21st, you can also get comfy, snack on some space ice cream, and watch NASA’s livestream of the solar eclipse, which will feature footage taken by 11 spacecraft, at least three NASA aircraft, more than 50 high-altitude balloons, and the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
HOW TO SEE IT SAFELY
people wearing eclipse glasses
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AMAZON
NASA states that the only safe way to look directly at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses” or hand-held solar viewers. (No, ordinary sunglasses definitely don’t cut it!)
If you’re in the path of totality, you can look directly at the sun only when the moon completely covers the sun, and things get dark. Then, pop them back on afterwards, because it’s extremely dangerous to stare up into the sun. NASA provides a list of reputable eclipse glasses and binoculars, like these, available on Amazon now:
Buy it: Lunt Certified Solar Eclipse Glasses, 5-pack for $10, Amazon.com
Certified Solar Eclipse Shades, 7-pack for $27, Amazon.com
Celestron Total Solar Eclipse Binocular, $35, Amazon.com
Celestron Refracting Telescope, $100, Amazon.com
If you have young kids gearing up for the solar eclipse, there are plenty of fun options to get them excited about space (as if it was difficult to get kids excited about space) like this activity book for the 2017 solar eclipse, available on Amazon.
CHASING THE ECLIPSE
Depending on where you are, the Moon’s shadow will be moving at speeds of over 2,400 mph, so don’t expect viewing the eclipse to last long (the longest the total eclipse it will appear, in Illinois, will still be under 3 minutes).
But, it turns out NASA is going to “chase” the upcoming solar eclipse using telescopes mounted on WB-57F jets so that they can see the eclipse for up to seven minutes, and try to learn more about the sun. They specifically want to try to study the more visible corona which is heated to millions of degrees while the actual surface of the star measures in at just a few thousand, according to Gizmodo.