It is being called the Great American Eclipse because the Monday, Aug. 21 cosmic event when our moon aligns between the Earth and sun will only be visible from the United States. Lowell Observatory astronomers will be greeting it in the little town of Madras, Oregon, one of the first places in the country to feel the eclipse. They will not be alone. Tens of thousands of spectators are expected to turn out as Lowell’s world-class astronomers and educators take the lead in science education through the Lowell Observatory Eclipse Experience.
Activities and presentations will start the night before, taking place on the Madras High School football field and in the nearby Performing Arts Center. The Science Channel will be there, too, showcasing Flagstaff’s astronomers and broadcasting live during the eclipse to a world audience of millions through its website and social media outlets.
“This is one of those neat phenomena that happens from time to time,” says Lowell Observatory Director and solar researcher Jeff Hall, Ph.D. “The moon is sort of by coincidence about 400 times smaller than the sun, but it is also about 400 times closer to us than the sun, so the sun and the moon appear to be almost exactly the same size in the sky. A total solar eclipse occurs when the disc of the moon crosses exactly across the disc of the sun and blots it out. And so, the shadow of the moon is falling on the Earth and traveling across the Earth at a fairly high rate of speed and you get that brief period where it turns sort of night-like during the day.”
Those within a 71-mile-wide diagonal band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the rare solar eclipse at 100 percent, which means total darkness for a little more than two minutes. Astronomers say the experience can be life-changing. The air temperature could be strikingly cooler as an eerie darkness sets in. Stars and planets can appear in the sky. And animals behave as if night has fallen.
“An eclipse is a profound event because it’s so weird,” said Hall.
In fact, Vikings, ancient Greeks and other cultures believed the sun was being devoured by something evil. Some early civilizations responded to a solar eclipse by making a lot of noise to chase the wolf, dragon or angry god away from the sun.
“I have seen one eclipse. I was all of five years old, but [it is] a pretty vivid memory. I was growing up in south central Virginia and the total eclipse of March 7, 1970, went right up the Eastern Seaboard. I distinctly remember looking at it through a telescope and being outside. It got noticeably cold, very abruptly. And, yeah, you hear the nocturnal animals starting to do their thing because they think the sun has set.”
During a total eclipse, special features of the Sun make cameo appearances, including the Sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona, which can glow like a white or pink halo in the darkness.
“The phenomena called Bailey’s Beads occurs right as totality starts and ends,” said Hall. “The point there is that the edge of the moon, we call it the limb, is not a perfectly smooth circle because the moon has mountain ranges and craters and ridges, so it’s kind of jagged. And, if you think about it, as that jagged edge finally covers up the sun, there will be this point where there’s a little bit of the sun that is visible. Then it’s not. Then it is. Then it isn’t, because of the light shining through the mountains. And so, you get this appearance of little dots or beads. And when the last one of those is about to go away, you have this ring of brightness and you can find any number of pictures of it online and it looks like a diamond ring.”
Astronomers say they can better study the sun during an eclipse. “Historically, eclipses played a significant role in helping us develop our understanding of the sun’s atmosphere because the very thin outer layers of the sun’s atmosphere – what we call the chromosphere and the corona – are up there every day, but you can’t see them because the dazzling light that illuminates the world, which comes from the photosphere, washes it all out. So, you can’t see it at all. And it’s only when that really brilliant disc is obscured you can see these other areas of the sun’s atmosphere and begin to get an idea of how the structure of its atmosphere works.”
Understanding how our star behaves has real practical relevance, says Hall, because a solar storm can interfere with orbiting satellites, disrupt communications and even knock out power grids if it is strong enough.
Lowell Hosts Two-Day Eclipse Experience
In Oregon, the Lowell Observatory Eclipse Experience begins at 6 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 20. Hall will kick off a trio of 30-minute presentations with “What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Eclipse,” an overview of observing eclipses and what scientists learn from them. This will be followed by Observatory historian Kevin Schindler’s “The Bizarre Cultural and Scientific History of Eclipses” and astronomer Dr. Gerard van Belle’s “The Pluto Vote: One Astronomer’s Personal Story.”
Then, it is a star party on the football field with celebrity appearances from Saturn, star clusters, nebula and galaxies. “As a thank you to the community of Madras for playing host to this and other eclipse events in the area, all of Sunday evening’s activities will be free,” said Schindler.
“The real fun starts Monday morning,” he added. “Doors to the performing arts center and football field open at 6 a.m., and astronomer programs begin at 7 a.m. These will continue at the top of every hour until 2 p.m., except at 10 a.m., when the eclipse is nearing the total phase.”
Schindler says the eclipse will begin at 9:06 a.m., and for an hour and 13 minutes, the sun will gradually become more covered. During that time, astronomers, educators and volunteers will help guests view the partial phase of the eclipse through a variety of filtered safe viewing devices. Over the stadium’s speaker system, Hall will serve as emcee, pointing out features and describing the phenomenon.
The total eclipse on the West Coast happens from 10:19 to 10:21 a.m.
Lowell Offers Viewing Party in Flagstaff
Northern Arizonans can anticipate a 70 percent eclipse starting at 9:40 a.m. “In Flagstaff, the daylight might get a little dimmer, but it most likely won’t be very noticeable,” said Lowell Observatory Communication Manager Molly Baker.
“You definitely would not want to look at any part of this eclipse in Flagstaff without proper approved eclipse glasses or through a specially filtered telescope,” said Hall. “In which case, you would be able to see the moon taking a very substantial bite out of the sun’s surface.”
To celebrate the celestial activity in Flagstaff, Lowell is hosting the Great American Eclipse Viewing Party. “We will be opening early and presenting the Science Channel live stream of totality on the big screen in the Giclas Lecture Hall,” said Baker. “We will also offer safe solar viewing through sun telescopes and special solar glasses, and Lowell educators will be available to explain what’s happening.”
Family friendly activities and crafts, like making sun catchers with solar beads that change color in the sun, will continue from 8 a.m. to noon. In addition, Wheely’s Cafe will be on site with coffee and pastries. Regular tours and programs will continue until the observatory closes at 10 p.m.
Hall says astronomical events set the stage for Lowell to accomplish its two-part mission: one being research, the other communicating the results of research and discoveries to the public. The combination has resulted in a successful business model as the facility is ranked among Flagstaff’s top three tourism events, with nearly 100,000 visitors a year.
“We offer a unique experience,” said Baker. “Where else can you take the whole family, from your eight-year-old child to your 80-year-old grandparent and have the whole family enjoy the trip? Where else can you peer through a telescope and have a professional astronomer explain to you what you’re seeing? Lowell Observatory is a unique place and a lot of people appreciate and enjoy that.”
The observatory reports an increase in membership in the past year, partly because of the eclipse. “Members can attend this event and others for free and people also value the fact that their membership provides admission discounts to more than 300 science centers across the nation,” she said.
“The total eclipse was quite a striking thing for a little kid,” said Hall. “This time, I’m going to be soaking in the day and enjoying the event.” FBN
By Bonnie Stevens, FBN
For non-members, admission to the Great American Eclipse Viewing Party is $15 for adults and $8 for children ages five to 17. Discounts are available for seniors and college students. Kids under five get in free.
For more information, visit lowell.edu/event/great-american-eclipse/?instance_id=564.