A summer event of a lifetime

Story and photos
by Linda Henderson

Summer is here. Sun, heat and humidity will be the most common conversation subjects for the next few months. But, there is another subject that lots of people will be talking about this summer — a total eclipse of the sun.

This event will be viewed by millions of people in the United States. Already, social media is starting to buzz about the event. Science nerds and astronomy geeks are planning their vacations, locations and buying the appropriate equipment (yes, which describes what I am up to).

On Monday, Aug. 21, a total eclipse of the sun will cross the entire continental United States. The last time there was a total eclipse was in February 1979, but it only touched a small part of the U.S. The last total eclipse crossing the entire U.S. was 99 years ago, on June 8, 1918.

During this year’s eclipse, everyone in the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, will get to see some part of the moon eclipsing the sun.

A solar eclipse is a lining up of the sun, the moon and the earth. What we see as an eclipse of the sun is the moon passing directly between the sun and the earth. The moon casts its shadow on the earth, resulting in the sun going black for a few moments. Solar eclipses only occur at the new moon phase. During the eclipse, the outside light will resemble late evening and the environmental temperature will decrease several degrees.

The track of the eclipse will begin on the west coast of Oregon and will track eastward to South Carolina for the next 90 minutes. There will be a 70-mile wide path that will get to observe 100 percent of the total eclipse. The moon’s shadow will totally cover the sun for approximately two minutes inside a narrow band in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North and South Carolina. Outside of that slender path, the rest of us will get to experience a partial solar eclipse.

The 501 area will not see 100 percent of the total eclipse, but we will be able to observe about 90 percent. The moon will cover a very large portion of the sun, so this is still going to be a spectacular sight.

According to timeanddate.com, the partial solar eclipse will begin at 10:46 a.m. in the 501. At 1:20 p.m., the maximum eclipse will occur. The moon’s shadow is the closest to the center and about 90 percent of the sun will be covered. The final stage of the eclipse will end at 2:48 pm.

If you want to observe the entire eclipse, you will need to scout out a location with a 360-degree view. When the maximum eclipse is occurring, the sun will be directly overhead.

If you plan on viewing the eclipse, remember to be safe! Eclipses of the moon are safe to view, but if you look at the sun during a solar eclipse without eye protection, serious and permanent damage can occur to the eyes. Regular sunglasses do not provide enough protection. Specialized protective eyewear and filters must be used to observe the eclipse.

According to Dr. Bill Paterson, O.D., “the sun damages the retina by focusing light as well as heat energy onto the central part of the retina called the macula. This heat energy can quickly damage this delicate tissue and cause vision loss called solar retinopathy. While a total eclipse is thought to have less chance of damage than a partial or annular, the phases of the eclipse leading up to totality can be just as damaging. It’s best to view with the proper filters or a traditional pinhole method.”

Photographing an eclipse of the sun will require a special solar filter that protects your eyes and your camera sensor. Using a camera that has “live view” will prevent you from looking at the sun through the lens. A “long lens” 200mm and greater will allow you to fill your frame with the eclipse. It will also be important to place your camera on a tripod. Even small cameras get heavy after several minutes of holding it, and tripods free your hands to make adjustments and filters.

The pictures that are a part of this Traveling in the 501 article were taken during a partial solar eclipse in May 2012. Even though it was a partial eclipse, it was still thrilling to see the sun dissolving into an upside down umbra.

The eclipse is still a few months away, but it is time to start preparing. Before Aug. 21, start planning your viewing location. Check with a local astronomy club and planetarium for special events. Get your protective eye wear in advance, the closer to the date the more people will be trying to purchase them. Bring a folding chair as the total event will last a couple of hours. Bring snacks and plenty to drink (it’s August in Arkansas).

If you miss the 2017 eclipse, you will have to wait until 2024 for the next total eclipse over North America. The good news is the next total solar eclipse will be directly over Arkansas.

The most important thing to remember is to protect your eyes. This will be a historical event, and you don’t want to remember it by the damage done to your eyes.

Linda Henderson
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