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Holy crap you guys we’re only a few weeks away from a total solar eclipse that will be viewable across a relatively huge swath of the United States. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience (depending on how long you plan to live…there will be another chance in 2024). Okay, so it’s maybe a once-every-decade-or-two-experience, but that’s still pretty rare! So if you have the time and opportunity to see this, I recommend you do it.
It’s especially accessible if you live in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia. Here’s a link to an interactive map that lets you see exactly when the eclipse will start and when it will end depending upon where you are. Remember that you have to be within the dark band to see totality, meaning that the moon will completely cover up the sun.
Here’s the problem for those of you outside the path of totality — places have been booked for a year or so in advance by every astronomy nerd on the planet, myself included. I actually started looking late last year and I had to fight to get an Airbnb, because even every campground available was booked solid, and many walk-in campsites were being converted to reservation-only to deal with the crowds. The reservations would fill up as soon as the campsites were released, so getting a spot was harder than scoring a concert ticket to see…I don’t know, what are the kids into these days? Ariana Grande I guess? Whatever, you get the idea. Science is cool.
You might still be able to get a campsite or a rental if you focus on the middle-of-nowhere areas, or you can book a spot outside the path of totality and drive to it. Just note that if you do that, you’re probably going to run into a lot of traffic, because pretty much everyone will be doing that. The more populous areas will be super crowded, but even the more rural areas will be dealing with much-higher-than-average crowds, so leave early and be careful!
I know that’s all bad news, but the good news is that no matter where you are in the United States (or Canada or Mexico), you can see at least a partial eclipse. Sure, it’s not as exciting and apocalyptic-looking, but you can still experience a little bit of a cool astronomical event and be a part of the nationwide fun. It’s kind of cool that in this ugly (political) time, we can all come together to appreciate how cool space is.
And it IS cool! Did you know that the Earth is the only planet in the solar system to experience eclipses? It’s because we’re the only planet with a moon that orbits in the correct orientation to allow it.
Some Christian creationists think that that’s evidence God created our planet especially for us. They also cite the fact that the Earth is the perfect distance from both the moon and the sun for the moon to perfectly cover the sun. Surely that’s not a coincidence, that the Earth is exactly that distance, right?
Only, it IS a coincidence and we know that because the Earth, moon, and sun are never the exact same distance. We’re not fixed in space — the moon orbits the Earth, the Earth orbits the sun, and the sun orbits the galaxy, and as they do, they get closer and further away. In fact, there’s a type of solar eclipse called an “annular eclipse,” which happens when the moon moves in front of the sun but it’s too far away from us to fully cover the sun, so you get a big ring around it.
Despite that, eclipses have long been used for religious purposes, and not just by Christians. Many ancient religions saw eclipses as portents, usually of the evil kind. I mean, it’s pretty terrifying if you don’t know what’s happening, to see the sun suddenly “eaten” in the middle of the day, plunging everything around you into darkness. But surprisingly quickly, ancient astronomers were able to keep good records of eclipses, enabling them to eventually predict them and getting humans started on the road to not being terrified of every weird atmospheric event that came their way.
So on August 21st, I hope you remember the scientists that help us continue every day to not be afraid of things we don’t know or understand. At the same time, I hope you remain just a little fearful — make sure that you protect your eyes. You have plenty of time to go online and order special eclipse glasses, or you can use some welding goggles or other glasses that are compliant with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard. You can only look at the eclipse during totality, when it suddenly gets super dark. Then slap those glasses back on as the sun comes back out.
Enjoy, and remember that if you miss it you’re going to have to start planning earlier for 2024!