As a volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum, I’ve been talking to visitors about astronomy for 28 years. Right now is an exciting time to be volunteering here thanks to the total solar eclipse that will happen this summer. As an astronomy enthusiast and an eclipse chaser, I have some great advice to share on how best to view the 2017 eclipse.
The Next Solar Eclipse
On Monday, August 21, the United States will have a view of a solar eclipse that will be visible across the entire country. The path of totality, a narrow margin of visibility stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, will feature the very best view of the eclipse. People viewing the eclipse in the path of totality, a path approximately 96 to 112 kilometers (60 to 70 miles) wide, will see the Sun totally covered by the Moon for a few minutes on that day. Not only will the corona, the Sun’s faint atmosphere, be visible, but stars like Regulus will also be apparent.
The rest of the country will see partial phases. In Washington, DC, where I live when I’m not chasing eclipses, we will have approximately 82 percent coverage. During the eclipse, the sky will become eerily dark and the temperature will cool down.
My Experience Chasing Eclipses
A solar eclipse is one of the most fantastic natural phenomena you will ever see. I know, because after this August I will have seen five eclipses. As an amateur astronomer, I chase eclipses to study and observe the Sun. I like to look at sunspots and other surface features, and viewing the Sun during an eclipse is a great opportunity to see even more. It’s also a great excuse to travel to other parts of the planet.
I experienced my first total eclipse in North Carolina nearly 46 years ago. Although I did not have a telescope with me at the time, I did record the temperature drop for fun using a Heathkit Chart Recorder and a temperature sensor. That first eclipse wasn’t much work: I sat on the ground and just enjoyed it. From my spot, I could watch the shadow bands forming and then I looked up right at the moment of totality.
My second solar eclipse occurred near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in 1991. I brought my big 20-centimeter (8-inch) diameter solar telescope, which was a big mistake. I learned that you don’t need a big telescope to view a solar eclipse, and it was a pain to travel with.
In 1998, I saw an eclipse at Curaçao in the Caribbean. It hadn’t rained in months, but then it rained that morning for about 10 minutes. Everyone was tearing their hair out thinking they wouldn’t be able to see the eclipse! But after a few drops, it cleared up. For this eclipse, I helped the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) gather data to help determine the width of the path for the eclipse. IOTA assigned me to go to the edge of the eclipse to help determine if the width of the Sun had changed over time. In general, results from IOTA research seem to show that the Sun's diameter does change very slightly over an 11-year cycle.
My fourth eclipse was in 1999, when there was also an IOTA meeting in Stuttgart, Germany. It was cloudy and raining, so we got in a car and drove. We ended up outside of Strasbourg, France, but we weren’t able to set up our instruments to gather data. Even though we could only see the eclipse through a hole in the clouds, it is still one of my favorite eclipse memories. One of the people with me had never seen a total eclipse before, and it drove her to tears.
For the upcoming 2017 eclipse, I am headed to Casper, Wyoming, to sit down in the middle of the path and enjoy it. I’m going to Casper because there is a better chance of clear weather, the Astronomical League is holding their annual convention there, and it’s also on the center line of totality. Since I’m almost 80, and this may be my last eclipse, I likely won’t do more work for IOTA. Instead, I’ll enjoy the eclipse and try to videotape it.
How You Can Chase the Eclipse This Summer Too
What should you do while chasing the eclipse this summer? Look at the weather reports, make sure you have a car, and drive. There may be clouds above you at one location, but none in a different direction.
Whether you are in totality or not, you have to be careful looking at the Sun. You will also need some kind of eye protection during the partial eclipse. Solar eclipse glasses are good and inexpensive, and you can find them online or pick them up for free at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. You can also find instructions online for ideas on how to safely observe the eclipse without glasses. I once observed a partial eclipse safely in 2015. I was visiting my son in Switzerland and had forgotten my eclipse glasses. I made a slit with my fingers and I could see the eclipse on the ground.
I will also bring a video camera with lenses and a solar filter so I can get a large image of the Sun. My filters reduce the Sun’s light by 100,000 times, making it safe to view.
If you are in Washington, DC, you can visit the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory, where I volunteer each week. On the day of the eclipse, the Observatory will be open, weather permitting, so that people can observe the partial eclipse through appropriately filtered telescopes and solar eclipse viewers. We will also broadcast views of the solar eclipse from places along the path of totality.
Wherever you are, I hope you get a chance to observe this amazing astronomical event. And if you happen to miss this one, don’t worry. There will be another one crossing the U.S. in 2024.