Questions & Answers

A total eclipse of the Sun occurs when the Moon gets between the Sun and the Earth and covers up the Sun. It just so happens that the Moon, as seen from Earth, and the Sun, as seen from Earth, are the same size in the sky. So if the two are exactly lined up, the Moon can hide the Sun from our sight. This allows us to see the Sun’s corona, which appears as a beautiful ring of light around the edge of the dark Moon. The sky becomes so dark that the stars become visible, birds stop chirping because they think it is time to roost, and people have an eerie sense of it being night in the middle of the day. Many people feel that this is one of the most beautiful natural sights and worth seeing at least once in a lifetime.

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The exact cosmic lineup that forms a total eclipse lasts only a short time in any given location. The total phase in 2017 will last a maximum of 2 minutes 40 seconds in the center of the Moon’s shadow. (This is short for a typical total solar eclipse; some can last 7 minutes.) The exact time it lasts depends on your location in the shadow band. The closer you are to the central line of the eclipse shadow, the longer you will have to enjoy the spectacle.

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For those in the United States, the August 21 eclipse begins on a beach on the west coast of Oregon, and ends on a beach on the east coast of South Carolina, making a narrow diagonal track across the United States. It goes through portions of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.

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There is no simple answer to this question. The ideal place to be is on the center line near a town or park where the weather is usually clear. The “wild card” is undoubtedly going to be the weather. One way to find the best places is to use some of the websites we recommend (or to search the web) to see where tourist groups and astronomer-led tours are going. They will most likely have done research about where weather prospects are likely to be the most favorable.

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The Sun’s visible (and invisible) rays can cause serious damage to the sensitive tissues of the eyes, often without one being immediately aware of it! Normally, our common sense protects us from looking directly at the Sun for more than a second. But during an eclipse, astronomical enthusiasm can overwhelm common sense, and people can wind up staring at the Sun for too long. Make sure you have something with you to protect your eyes before the eclipse becomes total—or if you are only seeing the partial eclipse.

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Pinhole Projectors to Indirectly View the Sun
If you don’t have safe glasses, a good way to see the eclipse is to project an image of the partially eclipsed Sun. One easy method is to make a pinhole projector. Take two pieces of cardboard or thick paper. Put a pinhole in one (taking care to make a small, neat hole). Then, stand with your back to the Sun and let the Sun’s light fall through the hole and onto the other sheet (Figure 4). You’ll get a small but distinct image of the Sun.

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Some of their helpful hints include the following: Expect a big crowd and prepare for it. Everyone in your group should go to the bathroom just before leaving for viewing the eclipse. Bring drinks and snacks with you. Don’t neglect the sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses if you are in an open area. For young kids, bring something to keep them occupied while waiting. For older people, bring a folding chair and a sun umbrella. (Remember sunglasses are for reducing glare; they don’t have the protection to let you look directly at the Sun!)
As more and more of the Sun is covered by the Moon, shadows become sharper, temperatures (slowly) lower, and the sky grows darker. If you are viewing from high ground, you may be able to see the Moon’s shadow on the land racing toward you (but that’s not always easy to see).

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The orbit of the Moon is tilted by about 5° from the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. This means that most months the Moon’s position is either above or below the Sun’s position when they are in the same part of the sky. But every six months or so, the two orbits cross, and then eclipses of the Sun and of the Moon happen. Total eclipses of the Sun are visible in only a narrow path along the Earth where the Moon’s shadow is really dark. A century or more can pass before any given location on Earth sees a total solar eclipse again.
The next total solar eclipse to go through the continental United States will be on April 8, 2024. It will mostly go through a different set of states than the one in 2017