On Monday, August 21st, America will be audience to a total eclipse of the sun that will cross the entire continental U.S. To put that into perspective, the last total eclipse in the U.S. occurred on February 26, 1979; the last total eclipse that crossed the entire continent was on June 8, 1918, and the last time a total solar eclipse occurred exclusively in the U.S. was in 1778. It’s been 239 years, but the “Great American Eclipse,” as it is being called, is coming later this month.
The entire continent will experience a partial eclipse lasting two to three hours, but anyone within a 70-mile wide path that stretches through 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina (Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky are the closest to us) will experience a total eclipse. When the moon orbits Earth and moves between the sun and Earth, varying degrees of darkness will take over, disrupting the normal rhythms of the globe. The corona, or sun’s outer atmosphere, will be visible along with bright stars and planets. The temperature will briefly drop, and plants and animals will react as if it were evening. All evidence that a solar eclipse really is a wondrous celestial event.
In addition to an awe-inspiring occasion, a solar eclipse also provides a unique opportunity for NASA scientists to improve our understanding of how solar energy is absorbed and reflected in Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists have gathered atmospheric measurements during past events, but this is the first opportunity to collect coordinated data from the ground and from a spacecraft located approximately one million miles away.
The public is also invited to participate by collecting cloud and temperature data from their smart phones using a free eclipse app that can help observe how the eclipse changes atmospheric conditions near them. Even observers in areas with a partial eclipse can still provide useful comparison data. Eleven spacecraft, over 50 NASA-funded high-altitude balloons, numerous ground-based observations and citizen scientists will capture a wealth of images and data that will be made available to the public before, during and after the eclipse.
So what can we expect to see here in Saline County and what are the best ways to view it? Central Arkansas will experience a 90% partial eclipse beginning at 11:47 a.m., peaking at 1:18 p.m. and ending at 2:46 p.m. NASA-TV will have a 3-hour live broadcast from 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. EDT, or you can follow along via social media at Facebook.com/NASASunScience, snapchat.com/add/NASA or Instagram.com/NASAGoddard.
If you are interested in a more personal experience, do not look directly at the eclipse – you will burn your retinas! The only safe viewing method is through special-purpose solar filters, such as eclipse glasses or handheld solar viewers. An alternative method for safe viewing is a 3-D printable pinhole projector.
Finally, if you want to get the full effect, travel is required. According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, the eclipse is a “planned special event for which there has been no recent precedent in the United States.” They are encouraging people to put in some extra effort to plan their travel ahead of time, be sure to bring food and water, and determine how to access a bathroom if they need wait out the traffic when they leave. As for me, I am going to stay put and wait for a total eclipse of the sun in Saline County – happening on April 8, 2024, at 1:52 p.m. to be exact!