Unless you’ve been living underground or at the bottom of the ocean, you’ve probably heard something about the upcoming solar eclipse — or at least seen someone’s Facebook or Instagram post about ordering eclipse shades. On August 21, millions will wear their sunglasses at night (sort of) to see the first total solar eclipse to touch the continental US since 1979, which will predictably go viral.
What may explain the spike in traffic jams that day is that everyone standing outside the extreme north of Maine should be within two hours of the path of totality. This is the area where the transiting moon will totally obscure the sun relative to the POV from Earth. The lunar umbra (shadow) will cast a temporary twilight on our planet. Because Earth is a sphere, the umbra will travel fastest at the middle of its journey.
You’ll be able to see that much more of the eclipse if you happen to be observing from this 70-mile-wide arc that sweeps from Oregon straight through South Carolina. Don’t fret if you’re not one of the 12.2 million whose back porch is on the path of totality, or if a road trip just isn’t happening—there will be spectacular partial views everywhere else. Not to mention shorter bathroom lines.
“There’s a lot of people who are going to be trying to get to the path of totality,” said solar scientist and eclipse outreach lead Alex Young of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “There just aren’t enough porta-potties in the world to handle this many people.”
Whether or not you brave the highway, at least the forecast is predicting clear skies.
Not everyone will be taking in the total eclipse of the sun from Earth. Astronauts orbiting 250 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station, which will be hovering over Canada when the eclipse occurs, will get a unique perspective when they get an eyeful of the moon obliquely casting its shadow over the North American continent. NASA’s point of view will vary in a different way, since it will carpe diem to fund 11 scientific solar investigations that will shed more light on the sun and how its phenomena affect our planet. The space agency also plants to set off test runs for equipment that could be flying on future satellites.
What’s with those shades, anyhow? For anyone looking directly into a partial eclipse, that would be because you’re basically staring into the sun even if it’s mostly obscured, but another advantage of being in the path of totality where not even a silver of the sun is showing is that you don’t need any fancy eyewear at all. The sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, glowing behind the moon and appearing to shimmer as plumes of light jet outward, will be burned into your memory.
Anyone who has pets should should be aware that animals tend to fall under a strange sort of lunacy during an eclipse. Anything diurnal will act like it’s actually dusk, and anything nocturnal may get an early wake-up call.
Can’t wait until the big day (or is it night)? Get a preview (no special sunglasses required) on the Eclipse Megamovie 2017 Simulator.