On Aug. 21, the moon will turn into a star.
In the first total solar eclipse to traverse the entire U.S. mainland since 1918, the moon will have a starring role in a major celestial drama as it crosses in front of the sun, plunging some areas into darkness so deep the crickets will start chirping and birds will head home to roost.
The eclipse pathway runs from west to east in a diagonal swath from Oregon to South Carolina. Millions of people from all over the world are expected to crowd the path of totality, which is only about 70 miles wide, to experience up to two minutes of total darkness.
In the Worcester area, we will see a partial eclipse with the sun roughly 64 percent obscured by the moon. The sun will take on a crescent shape but can only be safely viewed through special protective eye wear. You can get a close-up look at the eclipse through filtered telescopes at the EcoTarium in Worcester, where a “Solar Science Discovery” celebration will be in full swing from noon to 4 p.m. Aug. 21. Eclipse viewing glasses also will be handed out at the event.
“It won’t get visibly darker or anything like that here, but people who have solar viewing glasses or telescopes with the correct sun filters will be able to observe the sun having a very different shape,” EcoTarium Manager of Education Christina Chappell said.
The moon will appear to make first contact with the sun at about 1:26 p.m., Chappell said. The peak will be 2:45 p.m., and it will be all over at 3:59 p.m. “There will be a good, solid 2½ hours when people are able to view the sun and see it partially obscured,” she said. Eclipse viewing glasses and telescopes will be available throughout that time, but the EcoTarium also will have interactive activities and eclipse-themed programming in the planetarium throughout the day.
If the weather cooperates, this eclipse likely will live up to the star billing it’s been getting in the press.
“The big deal is the geography of it because it’s covering so many states,” Chappell said. “Some eclipses just swipe the corner of the continent or something like that, but this is basically like a moon shadow traveling across the whole country and I think that’s what people feel is lucky about this one.”
We can count ourselves extra lucky if the weather cooperates.
Based on typical weather for this time of year, the best odds for clear skies are the lee side of the Cascades in Oregon into Wyoming, with the best overall spot being Nebraska, according to Eric Fisher, chief meteorologist at WBZ in Boston. This eclipse is a celestial spectacle Fisher doesn’t plan to miss. He will be heading out to Wyoming, where the path of totality passes through Teton National Park. He thought nearby Jackson Hole seemed like a great place for an eclipse trip. He was hardly the only one who came up with that notion, however.
“I tried booking back in November or December and it was already too late,” he said. “It was tough to find accommodations. I mean the entire city is booked, every house, apartment, condo, resort — anything you could imagine. There’s no place to stay.”
He ended up booking a campsite in Yellowstone National Park and plans on driving the 50 miles or so to Teton on eclipse day. Fisher, who worked at The Weather Channel before signing on at WBZ, may well encounter some of his former colleagues on the way.
“It was the most requested day off in the history of The Weather Channel,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to get out of there and go somewhere to watch this thing.”
Why all the fuss about a few minutes of total daytime darkness?
“People talk about a full solar eclipse as one of the most mind-altering or dramatic experiences of their lives,” Fisher said. “To see one in person is supposed to be really all the way up there, and that’s why people travel from countries all over the world just for a few seconds of a full eclipse.”
The effect is said to be somewhat humbling as well.
“It helps you to feel out your place in the cosmos, your space in the universe, in the greater scheme of things,” he said. “When you see something of that magnitude, it gets you thinking a little bit.”
Michael Arnum has been thinking about this eclipse since he was in third grade at Josiah Haynes Elementary School in Sudbury. “I had to give a report on the mysteries of the universe and I was telling my class that the next eclipse that was going to come right through the United States wouldn’t be until 2017,” he said. “I thought ‘Oh my gosh that’s so far away, but I’m going to go and see it.’ ”
True to his word all these years later, Arnum will set off to find his place along the path. While most people are heading farther west because the weather tends to be drier, Arnum, director of marketing at Old Sturbridge Village, has booked a hotel in St. Joseph, Missouri.
“It’s right in the middle,” he said. “That gives me a chance to watch the weather and then drive if I need to. Hopefully, I won’t have to drive 600 miles but I’ve got to be prepared for that.”
There were other pluses that attracted Arnum to St. Joseph, the fifth-largest city along the path (Nashville is the largest). He liked the idea that an eclipse viewing party is planned at the local airport. “They’re going to have all kinds of things like a bunch of scientists and some telescopes with special filters on them so you can look directly at the sun,” he said.
Arnum made his plans many months in advance. Many communities along the path, however, are bracing themselves for a last-minute onslaught of eclipse watchers. Some have been preparing for years. The 200-person hamlet of Glendo, Wyoming, is expecting 20,000 people at its designated viewing area, a grass airstrip, with an additional 30,000 at a nearby state park, according to the blogging site fivethirtyeight.com. However, officials in many other small towns and hamlets worry there won’t be enough food, water of even bathroom facilities for the expected hordes.
Even meticulous planners like Arnum could end up elbowing their way into overcrowded venues or pitching a tent for the night by the side of an unfamiliar road in the middle of nowhere. A tent is part of Arnum’s emergency backup package in case clouds converge over St. Joseph. “No one really knows what the best viewing places will be because we don’t know what the weather will be,” he said.
But JoAnn Adams of Sterling won’t need a tent where she’s going. “We’re planning a cross-country trip culminating in Tennessee and, conveniently, my folks actually live just outside of Nashville so that’s the plan. We’ll be there for the 21st.”
Last February, Adams, a museum educator at the EcoTarium, called the county tourist board for Nashville to see what eclipse-related events might be going on. “One of the big questions they asked was ‘Do you have accommodations because they’re all booked now,’ ” she said. “So luckily we’re not running into the same thing everyone else seems to be running into.”
The next total eclipse over North America will be April 8, 2024. The path will run from Texas through the Midwest and just clip extreme northern New England. A total eclipse won’t occur over our area until May 1, 2079. The timing, and the fact that her 10-year-old daughter, Maggie, really wants to see an eclipse, played into Adams’ plans to make the Nashville trek.
“We’re not going to see this again until 2024 in North America and who knows if we would really have the opportunity to go?” she said. “With my daughter being at a great age to do this and the fact that my folks are right there, why not?”
The Aug. 21 Solar Science Celebration at the EcoTarium, 222 Harrington Way, Worcester, will feature programs and planetarium demonstrations as well as weather-dependent opportunities to safely view the partial eclipse.
Stormtroopers and Jedi will be at the event and people are invited to come dressed as their favorite Star Wars character. The EcoTarium is typically closed on Mondays but will be open from noon to 4 p.m. for this special event. Museum admission is included in ticket prices, which are $13 each/$5 for EcoTarium members when purchased online through Aug. 20. Day-of pricing is $18 each/$5 for EcoTarium members, although those tickets have limited availability and may sell out. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.ecotarium.org or call (508) 929-2703.