Michael Strauss: America’s Eclipse

Welcome to the UniverseOn Monday, August 21, people all across the United States will witness one of the rarest and most spectacular of all astronomical phenomena: a total solar eclipse. This occurs when the position of the Moon and the Sun in the sky align perfectly, such that the Moon’s shadow falls onto a specific point on the Earth’s surface. If you are lucky enough to be standing in the shadow, you will see the Sun’s light completely blocked by the Moon: the sky will become dark, and the stars and planets will become visible. But because the apparent sizes of the Moon and the Sun are almost the same, and because everything is in motion—the Moon orbits Earth, and Earth rotates around its axis and orbits the Sun—the Moon’s shadow moves quickly.  During the eclipse, the Moon’s shadow will cross the United States at a speed of 1800 miles per hour, taking about 90 minutes to travel from the Pacific Coast in Oregon to touch the Atlantic in South Carolina.  This means that totality, the time when the Sun’s disk is completely covered as seen from any given spot along the eclipse path, is very brief: 2 minutes and 40 seconds at best.

If you are standing along the eclipse path, it takes about 2.5 hours for the Moon to pass across the Sun.  That is, you will see the disk of the Sun eaten away, becoming an ever-narrowing crescent. During this time, you can only look at the Sun with eclipse glasses (make sure they are from a reputable company!), which block the vast majority of the light from the Sun.  It is also fun to look at the dappled shadows underneath a leafy tree; if you look closely, you’ll see that the individual spots of light are all crescent-shaped. A bit more than an hour after the Moon begins to cover the Sun, you reach the point of totality, and the sky becomes dark. It is now safe to remove your eclipse glasses.

Experiencing a few minutes of darkness in the middle of the day is pretty cool. But what makes the eclipse really special is that with the light of the Sun’s disk blocked out, the faint outer atmosphere of the Sun, its corona, becomes visible to the naked eye. The corona consists of tenuous gas extending over millions of miles, with a temperature of a few million degrees. It is shaped by the complex magnetic field of the Sun, and may exhibit a complex arrangement of loops and filaments: indeed, observations of the solar corona during eclipses have been one of the principal ways in which astronomers have learned about its magnetic field. The sight is awe-inspiring; those who have experienced it say that it is as a life-changing experience.

As the Moon starts to move off the disk, the full brightness of the Sun becomes visible again, and you must put your eclipse glasses back on to protect your eyes. The Sun now appears as a narrow and ever-widening crescent. A bit more than an hour later, the Sun’s disk is completely uncovered.

The shadow of the Moon will be about 70 miles in diameter at any given time. That means that if you are not standing in that 70-mile-wide path as the shadow crosses the country, you will only see a partial solar eclipse, in which you will see the Sun appearing as a crescent.  Again, be sure to wear eclipse glasses to look at the Sun!

Solar eclipses happen roughly once or twice a year somewhere on Earth’s surface, but because  of the narrowness of the eclipse path, the number of people standing in the path is usually relatively small. This one, crossing the entire continental US, is special in this regard: tens of millions of people live within a few hours of the eclipse path. This promises to be the most widely seen and recorded eclipse in history! I have never seen a total eclipse of the Sun before, and am very excited to be traveling with my family to Oregon, where we have our fingers crossed for good weather. So, to all those who have the opportunity to stand in the Moon’s shadow, get yourself a pair of eclipse glasses, and prepare yourself to be awed.

Michael A. Strauss is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. He is the coauthor (with Neil deGrasse Tyson and J. Richard Gott) of Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour.