US Eclipse 2017
Credit: Eric Adams

US Eclipse 2017

26/07/2017Written by Josh Barker

This August the United States will get a great opportunity to see a total solar eclipse.

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What is a solar eclipse?

What is a solar eclipse?
Korean painting of a dog stealing the Sun.
What is a solar eclipse?
The Moon's shadow cast over the Earth. This image was captured from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

August 21 2017 marks the end of America as we know it. The US skies will darken and temperatures will plummet as the Sun is devoured. While the above notion may be superstitious, America is about to experience a fascinating celestial phenomenon. The skies will in fact darken and the temperatures will temporarily drop. However, the Sun will not be devoured. Instead it will simply be covered up by the Moon in a phenomenon known as a Total Solar Eclipse.

In ancient history, eclipses were seen as ill omens, before people understood exactly what caused this. Now we know it’s just simple celestial geometry. As the Moon orbits around the Earth, it moves between the Earth and the Sun every New Moon. Occasionally, under exactly the right circumstances, everything lines up properly and the Moon’s shadow falls over the Earth. For people on Earth under the Moon’s shadow they will see the Moon move over the Sun’s disc during the day time sky.

It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT at this point to mention that you SHOULD NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN. The Sun should only ever be viewed with specialist equipment, even during an eclipse.

How to watch

How to watch
Path of the US Eclipse. Most of the US will see at least a partial eclipse. Credit: NASA
How to watch
Special glasses used for viewing solar eclipses.
How to watch
Download our pinhole eclipse viewer. Credit: National Space Centre

An eclipse is an exciting time for everyone regardless of their level of interest in space. As a result, many people want to observe the eclipse in action. If you are in the US on 21 August, you will have the opportunity to see this eclipse in person. The path of totality will be passing roughly through the central United States. Despite this path being narrow, most Americans will see at least a partial eclipse with most of the Sun’s disc being covered. This is the first time in 38 years that the US has seen a Total Solar Eclipse pass over the mainland.

To view an eclipse, you will need to use some specialist equipment. The easiest way to do this is to see if there are any viewing events occurring near you. These events will likely have experts and the necessary equipment to keep you safe.

If there aren’t any events near you, it is still possible to safely view the eclipse if you take the appropriate precautions.

One of the best ways is to get hold of some specialist eclipse glasses. These usually have a foil-like lens that reduces the light from the Sun to safe levels.

Another easy way to see the eclipse is to use a pinhole to project the sun onto a flat surface, such as a white piece of paper. To try this out, download our custom pinhole eclipse viewer and follow the instructions on the page.

Whichever method you use, be sure you’re safe by following any instructions that come along with the equipment. And if you don’t have a safe way to look at the eclipse directly, you can still experience it. As the eclipse occurs, the light level and temperature will drop as the light from the Sun is blocked by the Moon. This can be quite eerie, and sometimes even the birds stop singing. It is easy to see why our ancestors were scared and confused by this.

Remote Viewing

Remote Viewing
During an eclipse, scientists can study the prominences and outflows from the surface of the Sun, as seen here in this image. Credit: Luc Viator

If you’re not based in the US this August, or if it’s cloudy on the day, don’t worry! You can watch a livestream of the eclipse by tuning into NASA’s live megacast on 21 August. And look out for lots of stunning images and press around the time.

If you want to experience an eclipse for yourself, you may have to be a bit patient. Total Solar Eclipses happen fairly regularly but the Moon’s shadow can usually only be seen in limited areas. For example, the next time the UK will witness a total solar eclipse is 2090!

You can look up the next viewable eclipse (lunar or solar) here: https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/ and if you have a long wait, you can always book your next holiday destination to coincide with the path of an eclipse.

Happy Viewing

About the author: Josh Barker is an Education Presenter and a part of the Space Communications team at the National Space Centre.