Solar eclipses seen in totality are nothing short of spectacular. One minute, it’s a bright, pretty day and everything is as it should be, then the moon wanders through the sky like that cousin at everybody’s wedding who can’t seem to get out of the way of the photographer. During an eclipse, the sky darkens, sometimes it’s a brief dimming of daylight that looks almost like a large bank of clouds have passed over, sometimes things get scarily dusk-like in the middle of the day.
Depending on how close the moon’s orbit is to the Earth and how evenly the sun, the moon, and the Earth line up determines the extent of the solar eclipse, how long it lasts, and where it will be visible. Getting a good view of this is, as is true of any celestial event, a matter of luck. Perfect weather and geography play a part. To see the total solar eclipse in totality on March 8 and 9, the best place to be is along the moon’s orbital path over southeast Asia. According to NASA’s Eclipse Website, Indonesia is the place to be. However, a partial eclipse should be visible to anyone located peripheral to the moon’s path as it crosses over the Pacific towards the North American coast. In the U.S., this partial solar eclipse will be visible in Guam, American Samoa, Hawaii, and Alaska.
Doesn’t the moon manage to get somewhere between the Earth and the sun at some point fairly often? What makes this particular solar eclipse so special? According to Time and Date, a website devoted to all things calendrical, an average year has four eclipses, two of which are solar. Most of these are partial solar eclipses. Total solar eclipses happen when there is a supermoon, a popular term for the moon being in perigee, or at its closest proximity to the Earth as it will get and all three celestial objects line up just so. This happens every one to three and a half years.
What if you’re not in the path of this week’s solar eclipse? You could wait for the next one. According to NASA, the next lunar orbital path resulting in a total solar eclipse will fly right over the continental United States on August 21, 2017, heading southeast from Oregon on through the prairie states to the southeast, cutting a swath through Tennessee, the northeastern tip of Georgia, and leaving the country somewhere along the South Carolina coast.
If you can’t wait and travel is out of the question, the next best thing to being there are the live feeds that will be available on the internet. NASA TV will broadcast coverage of the solar eclipse starting at 7 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Central. Space.com will host a webcast from Slooh Observatory starting at 6 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Central.
When it comes to safety, webcasts are the way to go. According to NASA, it is never safe to look directly at the sun, and unfortunately, some observers have mistaken solar eclipses for opportunities to get a better look at our closest star. Even with something the size of the moon blocking all or part of the sun, the ultraviolet rays are still intense enough to cause retinal damage. The agency recommends projection as the safest form of first-hand observation. They suggest using the lens of an inverted pair of binoculars to project the image onto a white card as one way to watch the eclipse. Another safe way to watch the image of the sun reflected on the ground is observing dappling light through foliage or holding laced fingers over the ground or a piece of paper. Time and Date.com has instructions on how to make a simple pinhole projector for viewing solar eclipses. Other methods include welding glasses with a glass filter rating of 14 or higher or using glasses specifically created for viewing solar eclipses. NASA recommends contacting your local museum or planetarium for more information. NASA stresses repeatedly (and it is worth mentioning again) it is never safe to look directly at the full sun or a solar eclipse.
Whether you’re on the ground in the orbital path or enjoying the sun and moon’s pas de deux via the internet, this week’s must-see is 2016’s solar eclipse. Don’t miss it!
[Photo by National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/Getty Images]