On Monday, August 21, 2017, there’s going to be a total eclipse of the Sun, visible to path that goes right through the middle of the United States. You should be making plans to see this, and we’re here to help you know where to go and what to do.
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Fraser: Astronomy Cast episode 448: Prepping for the great U.S. eclipse. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, a weekly facts based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser: Great. So once again, just another reminder, we set up our Patreon campaign. Thank you everybody who has joined. Go to patreon.com/astronomycast. The money goes directly to pay the salaries of the people involved on Astronomy Cast, such as Chad and Susie, who we couldn’t do this without them. A big thanks to Paul Sques, Brian Kilby, David Power, and Joe Green for the new patreons joining us this week. We can’t begin to tell you how much we appreciate your support. Any admin-trivia to go or should we get cracking on the show?
Pamela: I think life is good. Everyone just stay involved and keep looking up for the sun because it’s going to disappear.
Fraser: Here we go. On Monday August 21, 2017, there’s going to be a total eclipse of the sun, visible to many in the U.S. You should be making plans to see this, and we’re here to help you know where to go and what to do. Alright, this is going to be really, really cool. And we’ve been – if you’ve been listening to the show, I hope, we have been prepping you for the fact that we’re going to be having this eclipse, for years now.
Fraser: But we are getting close. And we wanted to just put everything together for you in one package, so that you can just make sure you’ve got though through that you’re going to do on how to get the most out of this experience. So before we get into that Pamela’s, let’s do kind of the micro version of like what’s an eclipse?
Pamela: So there are two kinds of eclipses. One is when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, blocking the sun out, this is called a solar eclipse. And the other is when the earth passes between the moon and the sun and that’s called a lunar eclipse. And as coined by Katie Mac, if by any chance the sun ever ends up between the earth and the moon, that’s an apocalypse.
Fraser: Right. I love that cartoon that she did. And in this case, we are going to get, the moon is going to pass in front of the sun, steal the sun from us, but then bring it back.
Pamela: It’s true.
Fraser: And the pathway that you can see this happens in very specific places on earth.
Pamela: So if you think about it, you often have to walk around in order to find yourself with a perfect alignment of like the tree in front of a sign, or lining two people up for a photo that are in the foreground and background. You have to move around to get a specific alignment between three different objects. And the moon is fairly far away, and its shadow on the surface of the planet is awful tiny.
And so there’s only going to be a narrow ever changing of darkness that passes across the planet as the planet rotates, and the moon moves, and the earth orbits. And you have to be in that one narrow path in order for the moon to precisely block out the sun.
Fraser: Now I’ve seen solar eclipses in the past, but I’ve only seen partial solar eclipses. And so when you’re not on that path, but if you’re still on the day side and within a certain point, then you can see the moon take a chunk out of the sun.
Fraser: But that is lame compared to when the moon actually passes right in front of the sun.
Fraser: Everyone who has seen this considers it to be like a transcendental event, where they become one with the cosmos for a few brief moments. And just for that one second to really appreciate and understand the very fabric of the cosmos.
Pamela: Or for the two minutes.
Fraser: For the two minutes, yeah. For those two brief moments, you are the cosmos and the cosmos is you.
Pamela: This is what I keep hearing.
Fraser: This is what I keep hearing, too. I haven’t seen one yet. You haven’t seen a total solar eclipse yet, right?
Pamela: No, I’ve been rained on twice.
Fraser: Oh. You were on a ship one time weren’t you?
Pamela: I was.
Fraser: You chased one with a boat?
Pamela: I did, and we failed. We failed. The clouds moved faster than the boat did.
Fraser: That is sad.
Pamela: Yes, but we had a fabulous – it was a fabulous, fabulous human beings. We had a wonderful time. We got to see glow in the dark algae at night that evening bioluminescence. And while bioluminescence algae isn’t as exciting as a complete solar eclipse, at least we had that element of science.
Fraser: That just sounds like you’re just telling yourself stories to make you feel better.
Pamela: That’s true also.
Fraser: When the reality is the whole point of your trip is to see this, as again, like I said for a moment there, you could have been one with the cosmos, but you weren’t.
Pamela: I wasn’t.
Fraser: So this is it, though. We’ve called back the sun for a repeat performance, and the moon, and they’re going to put on this show. Now this one, they call it the Great American Eclipse. I take exception as a Canadian. We are in North America. We are also Americans.
Pamela: And you can see it. So the reason it’s called the Great American Eclipse –
Fraser: Sure, but what about the South Americans?
Pamela: Okay, so they should have put a north in front of it.
Fraser: The Great North American Eclipse, fine. The Great U.S. Eclipse. I’m going to call it the Great U.S. Eclipse.
Pamela: They estimate that 500 million people will be able to see full or totality. This includes everyone in the Continental United States, folks in Northern Mexico and folks in Southern Canada. So 500 million people in North America, they left off the North, yeah, the Great American Eclipse.
Fraser: But specifically that 20-ish kilometer wide path, where is that going to go?
Pamela: It starts in Oregon. It crosses in, in Oregon, and then it moves west to east across the United States, and exits through South Carolina. I kind of think of this as like the music lover’s eclipse, because there’s so much awesome music to pick from when figuring out where you want to go. We have it Southside of St. Louis can see totality. Nashville is on the line. There’s so much music along the way. But yeah, it goes across the entirety of the continental United States.
And it turns out that pretty much everyone who lives in the continental United States, and parts of Canada, is within like a six hour drive if they’re near a highway. Now if you’re not near a highway that time could get much longer. But there’s going to be a mass, mass movement of humans towards the path of totality we estimate. And this is why we are having this episode, to warn you now, it is time to begin prepping.
Fraser: Yes. And to sort of know what you’re in for here and what we think is your best bet. The problem as you experienced is that clouds can be a problem for eclipses. Now August 21st, you couldn’t hope for a more sunny day. I mean, anytime in July and August across the continental United States, your chances of having nice clear skies for the duration of this eclipse are high.
Pamela: Yes. And it’s not in the late afternoon for the thunderstorm corridor I live in. so for instance, where we’re going to be, somewhere within a four hour drive of St. Louis, you often get late afternoon thunderstorms, but this will be over and we’ll be driving home in any late afternoon thunderstorms, so that’s fine.
Fraser: It’s going to be in the morning for St. Louis?
Pamela: It’s noonish.
Fraser: So let’s talk about, what would be your recommendation for getting the most out of this?
Pamela: So honestly, as someone who sits on several national task forces, listening to all the concerns that are coming up, this event is something where we have the Department of Transportation in on the conversation, Homeland Security in on the conversation, pretty much every regional medical folks. And the reason for all of this is there is concern that with all of America trying to Snapchat, Instagram, Tweet, Facebook, their experience, the internet is going to come to a grinding halt.
Beyond that, with so many people trying to drive with last minute: well, it’s a Monday. I’ll take Monday off work and drive home after the event. The highway system is going to come to a grinding halt, because it’s also construction season here in the United States. And so what I would say is leave Friday, figure out where you’re going to be. Take your bicycle and be prepared to do some biking to get to a better location if you need to.
Were I not going to be with two busloads of awesome human beings, who I love dearly, which is why I’m doing this, I would be on my bike on the bike trails that run all along the Mississippi, because it’s not that hard to adjust your position by 20 or 40 miles on a bike. So yeah, we’re going to be on busses instead. This means that we’re going to be taking off super early in the morning trying to get out ahead of all of the people making last minute decisions.
Fraser: Yeah. I mean, I think that from what I’ve heard alto of the places to stay very close to the eclipse path now are essentially sold out. But you can get within striking distance of the eclipse path, within say three or four hours if you want to stay somewhere that’s relatively nearby, and then just drive. And then sort of keep your eye on the weather, and then head out early in the morning on the time of the eclipse, and try to cross paths with a place where it’s going to be good.
Pamela: Yes, that is an excellent plan. Now the catch is, when you’re figuring out where you want to be, you have conflicting motivations. On one hand it’s summer, and summer means hot, miserable, sticky, you don’t want to be in the sum, except it’s a solar eclipse, so you want to be in the sun. So you want to find some place, where at the time that you’re seeing the eclipse, which is going to vary for everyone. It’s going to be fairly early in the morning for the people in Oregon, depending on your definition of morning.
It’s going to be late in the afternoon for folks in South Carolina, lunch time for those of us here in the middle of America. So you’re going to want to make sure you know ahead of time where in the sky is the sun going to be during totality. And go download Stellarium, or Skywalk, or any of these amazing pieces of software that’s out there, and just figure that out ahead of time. You can set the date, look it all up, it’s super easy and will save you a ton of pain later.
Because like one of the places that I was checking out for some photography, I had the realization, the exact place where I was standing lined me exactly up with having a flag in front of totality. Now admittedly I could move five feet in any direction and fix that problem, but still it was one of those moments of huh, this is a unique bad position.
Fraser: What part of the country would you – if you had your choices, where would you probably go?
Pamela: Oh, man. So I’m a photo junkie, kind of like you are. And I have to admit I probably would be going to one of the national parks being somewhere up like Colorado, Wyoming, or again one of these gorgeous, gorgeous places, and just enjoying it with strange awesome big animals, who might be behaving strangely.
Fraser: Right. But a place like say Eastern Oregon is probably going to have the best weather, those parts will probably be more dessert, more dry, more sunny.
Pamela: And filled with the most people. If you’re an introvert, don’t go there if you’re an introvert.
Fraser: But also hot, and so you need to be prepared. I mean, as you said, this is the summer time, so you need to go with water. You need to go with the supplies. And you could be – you know, anticipate getting stuck in a traffic jam. Because you’re going to have literally all of the United States rush to this little line, and then for two minutes, and then all of the United States rush back off that little line, and both of those are going to be a problem.
And so just to be safe, I would say on the inbound side, give yourself a lot of time to get into some kind of position. Now the good news is you only have to be there for two minutes, so you don’t have to go and find a campsite and set up and all that kind of stuff. You literally just have to find a parking lot, or the side of the road, or whatever you can do to get yourself in position. You don’t need to really set up.
But I would give yourself more time on the getting out to position part, and to give yourself some flexibility to adjust your plans as the weather becomes its reality.
Pamela: And to be fair to the entire experience, between the moon starting to block out the sun, and the moon completely unblocking the sun, you’re looking at a couple of hours. Now, most people after they see totality, they’re done. I’m out.
Fraser: It’s over, got to be the rush.
Pamela: Exactly. But give yourself a chance to enjoy it first of all. So don’t get there five minutes before totality, everyone will have already gotten the good spot. And let yourself enjoy that whole process of the moon eating the sun, it’s kind of cool, at least this is what I’m told.
Fraser: How long does that partake?
Pamela: It takes about an hour.
Fraser: So the show really begins about an hour early, then you’ve got totality, which is two minutes, and then you’ve got another hour of the moon releasing the sun again.
Pamela: And what’s awesome is there are lots of places that you can go to find out exactly where you are, what are the times I need to worry about? So for instance, on eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov, they have links to a Google map. And I love the Google map that they link to. Because the Google map lets you figure out what time does totality start, what time does it end, and get all this information completely right for your location. Another site that’s really good to go to is greatamericaneclipse.com. This is a commercial website, but it is awesome.
And most of their really cool content is available entirely for free. I’m a fan of entirely for free. And there’s also an app that they’ve put together for the Great American Eclipse that gives you even more information on the path. And what they’re hoping is by the time of totality, they’ll also be able to give you highway information, so you know if the point you’re planning to go to has bad traffic.
Yeah, we’re going to be putting all of that information up. I can tell you right now; most of the highways are green and yellow, so if you leave today the roads are good. Don’t wait until the highways are all red, you might hate yourself.
Fraser: Yeah. Now let’s talk about getting the most out of the experience. So let’s say you’re organized, you get there early. You’ve got lots of water, food, you’re ready to go. What other safety equipment should you bring with you, because this is going to be a solar eclipse, these can be dangerous.
Pamela: Yes. So do not go looking at the sun before the moon is completely blocking it, you can do harm to your eyes. A quick glance won’t destroy your eyes, but it will give you like the green flashed of big sun splotch blocking out what you’re trying to look at. So a mistake I have personally made many times is practicing with my eclipse glasses, because you can use eclipse glasses to look at sunspots, where I’ll glance over to see if there’s clouds in front of the sun, and blind myself in the process, do not be me.
So practice with your solar glasses ahead of time, practice putting them on, looking at the sun, without blinding yourself with the sun first. If you’re not skilled with eclipse glasses, as clearly I am not skilled, work on doing something else that allows you to enjoy the experience. You can build a sun funnel. We have instructions of that from the Venus Transit a few years ago, and we’ll be doing some of these. And the quick links I’m going to pop up over the following weeks.
Fraser: You can buy, and relatively inexpensively, you can pick up binoculars, solar binoculars. I know you can buy a pair of solar binoculars; they’re like around $30.00, look them up on Amazon. If you are, I would get them sooner than later. And they’re great for just looking at the sun in general, if you want to be able to see sunspots and things like that. So it’s definitely worth having a pair of those already.
If you want to go fancier than that, there’s like the solar telescopes by Coronado makes one, and there’s a few of them. And then you can actually see the sun up close. And some of them are in different filters, so you can actually see like a hydrogen alpha filter of the sun, while the moon is passing in front. And those are just a party, even when there’s not an eclipse; they’re a lot of fun to use.
Pamela: But a lot of you are going to have kids, and kids are just not – don’t let a kid try and look through binoculars, like little, little kids look through binoculars at the sun, because they’re going to make my kind of mistake and look with their eyeballs, too.
Fraser: No, you want special binoculars, yeah.
Pamela: So beyond that, just project it. There is what are called pinhole viewers. It turns out that if you poke a pin through something like an index card, or a big piece of cardboard actually works a whole lot better, pizza boxes are awesome for this, that hole, you can cast the sun through it and make a projection of the sun. And you don’t have to wait for the eclipse to do this. Do it now, enjoy some sunspots, get some practice doing this.
Fraser: And that’s exactly what I really recommend is get some practice. The sun, unless you live here on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, the sun is up, and you can practice. You can see sunspots. You can go out and find it with proper safety equipment, with eclipse glasses. I think number 14 welder’s glass does the same thing, or one of these fancier solar telescopes, the one that’s got the solar filters on it.
But the thing you absolutely must not do is look at the sun very long with your unaided eye, which, you know, duh, that hurts and so you don’t do it very long. But the one that’s the real killer is a person will take a pair of binoculars or telescope, they’ll point it at the sun for just a moment and it will destroy your eyes. The magnified light of the sun going into your eyes through a pair of binoculars or telescope can blind you permanently, literally instantaneously.
Pamela: It can also set fire to things, so be careful.
Fraser: Set fire to your eyes. So the point here is you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the right safety equipment. And this is the kind of thing that you’re going to want to practice. And you’re going to want to have your kids practice as well beforehand, just to make sure that when the actual event happen, you all know which piece of gear to use, and you all know where to look, and how to look to be safe as it’s unfolding. Don’t try to sort of explain it to everybody, and in advance.
Pamela: And the other mistake a lot of people are going to make, and this is the same mistake they make with rocket launches, is they’re going to be so focused on trying to get the perfect picture that they forget to enjoy the experience. It is completely fine to take pictures, but make sure your camera can just do it without you. So set up your camera on a tripod. And if it can’t be programmed to have the shutter go off on its own, do like I do and get a remote.
So you’re sitting there and you’re like that looks cool, click, but you don’t stop looking through your eclipse viewer. You don’t stop enjoying the moment. And don’t forget, you can also destroy your camera if you’re not careful during an eclipse.
Fraser: I have destroyed a telescope.
Pamela: Oh, don’t do that.
Fraser: No, don’t do that. So I was doing a projection. So one of the things you can do with a pair of binoculars, if you don’t look at it, is you can do a projection, where you hold the binoculars, and then the binoculars focuses the light and creates a spot on the ground, on a white sheet, and that’s the shape of the sun, you can’t actually see the chomp go out of it. You can even see sunspots and stuff.
But if you leave it for too long in that direction, it heats up the optics inside, and heats up the glass, and heats up the glue, and sort of ruins the capability of it. So it’s okay to do it very quickly, but you’re going to want a better solution. So I guess what we’re saying is take the time, figure out the gear you’re going to want to be able to get a nice view of it. Practice safely with the sun.
Pamela: The sun is there from here until August.
Fraser: The sun is there, practice, you’ve got lots of time. Everyone on your expedition should be ready to go. And I think your advice about taking pictures versus seeing is really important. I think the advice I’ve heard from many people is that if this is your first eclipse, your first total solar eclipse, don’t do anything, but just try to enjoy it. You know, just take it and appreciate the moment, don’t try to capture it.
That’s what the veterans do. Number two, number three, number four, when you get the bug and you’re chasing eclipses around the world, then by all means take the pictures and do it, but for that first time just take it and don’t try to capture it and be a hero.
Pamela: And remember sunscreen, 24 hours worth of water, 24 hours worth of food, because you may not need them, but you may not to bail out the poor shmo down the sidewalk from you, who is sitting there dehydrating. So be prepared to take care of others as well, be safe out there.
Fraser: And now let’s say that you have maybe, you’ve already seen an eclipse, and you want to participate with your camera, or maybe some other science, there’s a really great project that’s going to be on during the eclipse, right?
Pamela: The Mega Movie.
Fraser: Yeah, the Mega Movie. So you can do a Google search for Eclipse Mega Movie. And this is being organized, I think with Google and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, right?
Pamela: And it’s out of the University of California Berkley’s Center for Astronomy Education group with Laura Peticolas.
Fraser: And the plan is that they’re going to combine the images, the pictures and video from astronomers across the entire eclipse path.
Pamela: Photographers, not astronomers, anyone with a camera can participate.
Fraser: Well, you need to sign up and register the gear that you have, and let them know what kind of a camera you’ve got, and what kind of a lens you’ve got. And then they’ll let you know if it’s up to spec, and then they’ll send information on how to participate in creating the Mega Movie. So that is going to be – you know, you do want to be a hero, and you do want to take some pictures, this is a great project to get involved in.
Pamela: And what is not recognized nearly enough is we can’t generally study the sun’s corona real well, except during eclipses. Because when we try and observe it from space we put a big old blocker in front of the disc of the sun, and it blocks out the corona closest to the sun. And we do that to protect our telescopes. But that means we can’t study what the corona is doing right next to the sun, and so we have to try and do this during the eclipse.
And Mega Movie is one project that’s working on that, but mostly what Mega Movie is also doing is there’s this effect called the Diamond Ring, where as the sun passes behind the moon, there are peaks and valleys on the surface of the moon that cause the sun to be imprecisely blocked as it’s going towards being completely behind the moon. And that incomplete blockage causes bright flares of light.
And I mean this is in terms of lens flare J.J. Abrahams’ style, not coronal mass ejection flare, but these what look like diamond flashes. And we can learn about the surface structure of the moon this way. Now beyond that, which Mega Movie is doing, there’s also Project Kate, which is a NASA funded project. I think they’re also getting funding from some corporate sponsors. And they’re going to be out there with telescopes spread across America documenting the corona.
Fraser: Fantastic. Yeah, it’s such a wonderful concept that you can actually see the mountains on the moon because you’re seeing the little gaps of the sun peaking through the valleys in between. I love that idea. Cool. And if you miss this one, there’s going to be another one in 2024.
Pamela: 2024. And it’s not too far from here, so yeah, we’ll be making plans yet again.
Fraser: The second great North America eclipse.
Pamela: This one is going south to north, so it’s a different route.
Fraser: Perfect. Well, we are of course going to be watching it live. We really encourage you, if you haven’t already, make plans, find some friends, organize a road trip, see what you can do to get out there, take all the precautions, practice as we are telling you to make sure that you are able to view this eclipse safely.
And really have one of the most, I think – you know, I’m a little hyperbolic, but this going to be one of those moments when you are truly one with the cosmos. And for a brief moment you will just understand everything, and then the sun will reappear and you’ll forget everything again.
Pamela: There should have been a solar eclipse the day I defended my districtation. It would have been easier.
Fraser: At that exact moment, you would have understood for one brief moment.
Fraser: Yeah, cool. Well, thanks, Pamela. And now I’m just so excited. I can’t wait. We’ll see you next week.
Pamela: Sounds good, see you later.
Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at email@example.com. Tweet us @astronomycast, like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 1:30 p.m. Pacific, 4:30 p.m. Eastern, or 20:30 GMT.
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Duration: 30 minutes