Total solar eclipse of November 2012, photographed from Queensland, Australia. Click image to enlarge
THE INTERNETS OVERHYPE everything, and everything includes astronomical events. Take, for example, last month’s full moon-eclipse-comet incident. Online media had a whale of a time with that one, with headlines national and otherwise trumpeting it as a Triple Treat, a Stargazer’s Delight, a Cosmic Triple Feature, a Trifecta, and even a Snow Moon Lunar Eclipse Comet Spectacular!, among other super-exciting boosterisms. But in truth it was a very subtle affair, exciting only to those who spend a disproportionate number of hours examining the far-off twinkly lights. Not only that, but a full moon is required for a lunar eclipse, so that reduces the trifecta to a difecta, and that’s not even a word.
Yes, it’s neat that an eclipse of any kind happened on the same night a comet was visible. But. The eclipse was of the penumbral variety, which means the Moon drifted through the outermost edge of the Earth’s shadow and dimmed just a fuzz. If you were not an avid Moon-watcher you’d not know it was happening at all. And the comet (it’s green! they said) was invisible to the unaided eye. If you had had a good pair of binoculars, had known which blank space in the sky to point them toward, and had been willing to stay up until 3 AM or so—five hours after the end of the eclipse—on a February night, you would’ve been able to make out comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková. But seeing its faint green hue required high contrast with the background sky, and the Moon’s full and no-longer-eclipsed face brightened the sky so much that simply seeing the comet—with binoculars—would have been an achievement, especially for anyone unaccustomed to such work. Color would have eluded you unless you had a large telescope.
So again: there is hype.
But we’re on the leading edge of a vast incoming swell of fresh astro-bluster, and, though the media will certainly find new ways to overdo things, the total solar eclipse of Monday 21 August is something you’ll remember as long as you live. You should start making plans now.
In a total solar eclipse the Sun gets entirely covered by the Moon. The Sun, you will have noticed, is brighter than the Moon, so when it goes out you’ll not be able to miss it. But it will only go all the way out out along a 70-mile-wide swath running from Oregon to South Carolina. The Moon’s circular shadow will make landfall near Salem at 10:15 AM (local), race eastward across the continent at about 1100 mph, and pass into the Atlantic north of Charleston at 2:49 PM (local).
Click on image for high-resolution version
You will need to be within the shadowy band on the map to experience totality, which is the complete coverage of the Sun by the Moon. Along that path the sky will go dark, the overhead stars will appear, the air will cool, and the birds will fall silent. The Sun will appear as a ghostly ring among the stars and for once in your life you’ll be free to stare directly at it. All of this will happen in the middle of the day and will last about two minutes.
Outside the path viewers will experience varying depths of twilight. In Atlanta, for example, 97.3% of the solar disc will be obscured so the Sun will show itself as the slightest of crescents. The world will grow strangely dim but it will not be enough to cool the air or quiet the birds. And the Sun will not appear weird and wraithlike among the stars. You’ll not be able to look at it. Down in Mexico the Moon will eat a bite out of the Sun and sensitive observers will notice a slight decrease in daylight but it will not be dramatic.
But for those who experience totality, this will be an event to talk about all the way to old age. This will be the real thing.
So: pray for clear skies, dear reader. Plan a long weekend and a road trip with family and friends. Take some kids if you can. But if you can’t that’s okay. Go with one grownup or three, go alone, whatever. Whether or not actual children are present is not so important—this eclipse will have the power to draw out the child in all of us.
P.S. Here’s a detail map for my Atlanta peeps. Click on it to enlarge