There’s an astronomical event happening this summer that you and your family won’t want to miss! There will be a total solar eclipse going all the way across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. If you want to nurture your child’s interest in science and the natural world, this is a special opportunity.
On Monday, August 21, 2017, the moon will move across the face of the sun during the daytime, and this will cast a shadow on the earth that will only be a few miles wide. For about two and a half minutes there will be darkness within that narrow shadow. Stars and planets will suddenly become visible, street lights will automatically turn on, and farm animals will lie down for some unexpected sleep.
You can get your family excited about the viewing the solar eclipse ahead of time by watching this short video from Neil deGrasse Tyson.
How to Observe the Solar Eclipse
It's never safe to look at the sun unless using special solar glasses. The safe solar glasses are very inexpensive ($3.00 - $5.00) and can easily be purchased online. A few minutes before the solar eclipse takes place, put the glasses on and look at the sun. The glasses will block almost all light, only allowing the core of the sun to be seen. As the eclipse begins, you will see the face of the sun slowly disappear as the moon moves in front of it. It is important to keep the glasses on until the moon completely blocks out the sun.
When the sun is completely blocked (or eclipsed) by the moon, it is safe to remove the glasses and observe the dark sky with just your eyes. You will have about two and half minutes to do so before the moving moon allows sunlight to slowly light the sky again. It is important to put the glasses back on when the sunlight becomes visible, if you wish to continue observing the sun.
Finding the Perfect Location
As for specific eclipse locations, I suggest doing a Google search for "2017 Eclipse" and visiting several of the many search results. Study the maps for locations where your family might vacation in August. From west to east, here are some notable cities in the path of the eclipse (and don't forget the hundreds of smaller cities in-between): Salem, Oregon; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Lincoln, Nebraska; St. Louis, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina; and Charleston, South Carolina.
Some cities will not experience a total eclipse (Portland, OR, for example), so when planning your viewing experience, check this NASA guide if you want to make sure that you experience the totality. (In Washington, DC, a partial eclipse will be visible in the afternoon, so even if you can't travel, you will still have much to see!)
An eclipse cannot be seen if the weather is cloudy, so begin checking weather forecasts about 2 weeks before you travel. If the weather looks bad, have a back-up plan with another city.
I was a Park Ranger with the National Park Service for 20 years and hosted many astronomy gatherings. I will be delighted to assist Lowell families with additional information. If you ever want to observe the sun safely, find me on a clear day at Lowell, and I will be glad to let you look through my solar glasses.
If things don't work out on August 21, 2017, do not despair. Another one of these rare beauties will go through the middle of the United States again, but this time from South to North. You only have to wait until April 8, 2024.
Title image credit: Cednik | Dreamstime