On Monday, Aug. 21, all of North America will be able to view a total solar eclipse—the first continental eclipse seen since 1918. What starts at 9:05 a.m. in Lincoln County, Oregon, will travel 3,000 miles and cross to the eastern shoreline of South Carolina at 1,500 miles an hour, ending in Charleston. According to NASA, the occurrence is likely to happen only once every 375 years.
While people in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, will have the longest duration to view the total eclipse (2 minutes and 43 seconds) at 1:34 p.m., by 4:09 p.m. the birds that fly to roost, cicadas that come out to sing, and spiders that have dismantled their webs will return to their normal daylight-hour routines. And NASA will have new data to work with in regards to the sun’s radiant energy. They will be measuring Earth’s atmospheric changes—what happens when clouds, particles, or the moon block sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface.
In Wilmington various festivities are set to take place to honor this rare scientific happening, like making protective eye gear for viewing at New Hanover County Pleasure Island Library on the 16 at 10 a.m. The northeast branch of the library will host a pinhole projector-building event on the 19 at 10 a.m., free and open to all ages. Tidal Creek will have a viewing party on the 21, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., with a DJ from Gravity Records spinning tunes, alongside free outdoor yoga session and eye glasses available for $1.
Airlie Gardens and the Cape Fear Museum are planning a viewing party, too, at the historical grounds on Bradley Creek. In fact, the museum will host multiple events in their pop-up series this week to preface the eclipse. We spoke with museum educator Jameson McDermott about the eclipse to find out more.
encore (e): First, what makes the “Great American Eclipse of 2017” so special?
Jameson McDermott (JM): This is the first major solar eclipse to cross the contiguous United States since 1979 and that eclipse only passed through the northwestern part of the country. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 will span from coast-to-coast with an estimated 500 million people observing a partial or total eclipse. The last eclipse to roughly follow this path happened in 1918.
e: Why does an eclipse happen?
JM: An eclipse happens when the moon’s orbit causes it to pass between Earth and sun, temporarily blocking the sun’s light. While the sun is much larger than the moon, it is so far away the two appear to be the same size in the night sky. When they line up exactly right, the moon can appear to cover the sun entirely.
e: How much distance is between them?
JM: The sun is approximately 400 times bigger than the moon and it is also approximately 390 times further away from Earth than is the moon.
e: How fast does the shadow travel across the sun?
JM: For people travelling to areas of “totality,” where the sun will be completely covered by the moon, the total phase will last for less than 3 minutes. The moon’s shadow will be travelling at an average speed of 1,651 mph as it crosses the United States. People viewing the eclipse in Wilmington can expect the entire experience to last about 2.5 hours, with maximum coverage of the sun at 2:48 p.m. Viewing times of the solar eclipse in Wilmington have a start time of 1:20 p.m. with its peak at 2:48 p.m., and it will conclude at 4:10 p.m.
e: What are some cool science things we will see because of the eclipse that wouldn’t be apparent otherwise?
JM: During a total eclipse you are able to view a faint corona (the outer atmosphere of the sun), spreading outward from the shadow of the moon. For people who visit areas of totality, as the moon’s shadow begins to cover the sun, they will experience a bright flash in the last moment before the shadow eclipses the sun’s light. Sometimes you are also able to see solar prominences—small amounts of hot material extending out from the sun’s surface through the corona.
e: Why do we need special glasses to see it? Also, are you offering them to the public at all?
JM: Looking at the sun is dangerous and can cause permanent eye damage. Damage can occur before someone even realizes the tissue of their eyes has been injured. Eye protection is a necessity for viewing the eclipse; everyone should make sure they are only attempting to view the eclipse through eclipse glasses or handheld solar viewers that meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard. Only four manufacturers of eclipse glasses currently meet that standard: Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics, Thousand Oaks Optical, and TSE 17.
Per the NASA guidelines, do not look at the sun “through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars, [sunglasses], or other optical device. Similarly, do not look at the sun through a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device while using your eclipse glasses or handheld solar viewer—the concentrated solar rays will damage the filter and enter your eye(s), causing serious injury. Seek expert advice from an astronomer before using a solar filter with a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device.”
An alternative method for safe viewing of the partially eclipsed sun is pinhole projection. For example, cross the outstretched, slightly open fingers of one hand over the outstretched, slightly open fingers of the other. With your back to the sun, look at your hands’ shadow on the ground. The little spaces between your fingers will project a grid of small images on the ground, showing the sun as a crescent during the partial phases of the eclipse.
Solar eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers are the only safe way to view the solar eclipse. Cape Fear Museum and Airlie Gardens will be offering solar eclipse glasses to share at the Eclipse Party at Airlie Gardens.
e: Tell us about the party.
JM: It will feature astronomy demonstrations and activities, explorations of UV light, modeling of the relative sizes of the sun and moon, and more, from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., with the greatest coverage of the sun at 2:48 p.m. Community partners in this event include the National Weather Service and New Hanover County Libraries. The KONA Ice Truck will also be present.
In addition to the solar eclipse party on August 21, Cape Fear Museum’s Summer Pop-up—Monday, August 14 through Saturday, August 19—will feature activities related to the solar eclipse, including a modeling activity on the relative size/distance of the sun and moon; exploration of the tilt of the moon’s orbit; an art project of the sun’s corona; and teaching how to safely view the solar eclipse.
e: Anything else readers should know about the eclipse, sun, moon, or earth, in light (dark) of this momentous occasion?
JM: The next total solar eclipse to traverse the contiguous United States will be on April 8, 2024. The eclipse will cross the U.S. from Texas to Maine.