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Getting ready for the Great American Eclipse

Getting ready for the Great American Eclipse
Collage of images of partial and total (center) phases shot during a total solar eclipse from the desert in Libya. - Original Credit: Curtis Roelle (Curtis Roelle / HANDOUT)

Perhaps you have not heard about the Great American Eclipse coming on Aug. 21, but you will. Mark my word. It will be big news come August. With a half-billion persons expected to be someplace where at least part of the eclipse is visible to the millions living within and traveling to the region of the central path, America will be talking about it for sure. The U.S. Postal Service will even be issuing a stamp commemorating the event.

The purpose of this article is to alert our readers who may be interested in making advanced plans to travel to a location where the total solar eclipse will, weather permitting, be visible. This installment is not a technical article. Rather it discusses information necessary for making decisions and travel plans.

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The total eclipse occurs during summer vacation and is a great opportunity to combine family travel with perhaps the most sublime event that occurs in nature. Keep in mind that the last total solar eclipse in the continental Unites States occurred more than 38 years ago, so "those in the know" are not going to be caught napping and are making plans now.

Anyone who wants to see the full splendor of an eclipse needs to be within the central path on eclipse day. This is a 62- to 71-mile wide strip of land stretching from Oregon to South Carolina wherein which the moon's shadow races cross-country from sea to shining sea. Only in this zone will a total solar eclipse be visible. Although a partial eclipse will be visible in Maryland, nowhere within the boundaries of the state will the total phase of the eclipse be visible. Marylanders must travel outside the state in order to see it.

By the way, the next total solar eclipse visible in Maryland will not be until the year 2099, and even then the central path will only nick the state's western edge. So even if you'd rather wait for that one instead, you will probably still need to travel anyway!

Observers located outside of the central path will only see a partial solar eclipse. The moon will take a "bite" out of the sun, but it will still be daytime bright out – except near the central path where the sky might darken slightly. If you're that close, you might as well go the extra distance and experience totality. Besides, you will need to use safe observing techniques and not look directly at the partially eclipsed sun.

However, within the central path, the partial eclipse progresses with more and more of the sun being covered. Finally, the moon completely blots the sun revealing the solar corona, as well as stars and planets during the daytime. During this brief period of totality, lasting no more than about 2 1/2 minutes or so, no protective filters are needed. You can look directly at the sun – but again, only if you are located inside of the path of totality and only during the total phase!

The central path of totality crosses directly over a number of population area. The list includes Kansas City, St, Louis and Charleston, South Carolina. State capitals within the path include Salem, Oregon; Lincoln, Nebraska; Jefferson City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee and Columbia, South Carolina, plus near misses for Boise, Idaho and Topeka, Kansas.

Simply use Google to learn more about the eclipse. What it is, what to expect, and where to see it. There are animations following the shadow of the moon as it passes from state to state while crossing the country, as well as interactive maps showing the circumstances — time and duration of the eclipse — for any geographical point in the United States.

There are also books and guides available to help you plan your trip. One of the best authorities on eclipses is Fred Espenak, who has written a number of books to help observers in their planning to make the most of this event. The two I use most are "Eclipse Bulletin: Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 August 21" and "Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017."

Those books and others are available from mreclipse.com and other online sources including Amazon.com. Other notable web sites for helping you start planning your total solar eclipse vacation are greatamericaneclipse.com and eclipse2017.org to name but only two.

The U.S. Postal Service is releasing a total solar eclipse stamp on June 20, the day of the Summer Solstice marking the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere. The stamp displays the black disk of the moon eclipsing the sun and surrounded by the solar corona. When warmed slightly, such as by a finger, an image of the full moon replaces the dark disk thanks to the use of thermochromatic ink.

Don't wait until the last minute to start planning. Begin now while there's still time left.

Curtis Roelle is a member of the Astronomical Society. His website is www.starpoints.org, and he can be reached at starpoints@gmail.com.

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