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Jun 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – June, 2017

The Great American Solar Eclipse

The monthly meeting of the Shoreline Amateur Astronomical Association on January 16, 1992 promised to be a fairly interesting event. Our guest was the accomplished Muskegon astrophotographer, Bill DeVette, who would be giving a talk titled, “Blackout in Baja”, during which he would share his experience observing and photographing the total solar eclipse of July 11, 1991, as viewed from Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico. As expected, Bill’s photos were stunning and his description of the eclipse was interesting, but what really blew most of us away was his cassette recording (remember, this was 1992) of the sounds of the people observing the eclipse.

For the first minute or so of the recording people were more or less milling around with casual conversations about the darkening sky, the equipment being used, and images being projected. All of a sudden the conversations stopped and cheering and shouting began. I remember thinking, what the heck is that all about? So I asked Bill that very question and he explained that this was a normal reaction for people witnessing a total solar eclipse – awe inspired exclamations of wonder and joy!

Fast forward to February 26, 1998. With the support of Fennville Public Schools I, as a teacher of astronomy, was able to travel with my wife, Lyne, to Aruba for another total eclipse of the Sun. It was there that I fully understood what I had heard on Bill’s tape recording. I was fairly involved with photographing the event for use in my classroom, but I did pause long enough to take in the splendor of one of nature’s most amazing spectacles. Lyne described it as “a mystical experience” and I can verify that it was a sight I will always remember. That is why I am greatly looking forward to the “Great American Eclipse” of August 21, 2017.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly between the Earth and the Sun, casting its shadow on Earth’s surface. Just like the shadow of a beach ball on the sand, the Moon’s shadow is small compared to the entire Earth and as it moves over the terrain at about roughly 1000 miles per hour although this varies widely for different eclipses. In order to witness the total eclipse you have to be in the path of this shadow, called the path of totality. On August 21 this path stretches from Oregon to South Carolina, and is closest to us in parts of southern Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Just Google “eclipse 2017” and you will find an abundance of information on locations and methods of safe viewing. I just want to emphasize a couple of important points. During the partial phase of the eclipse, that is, before the Sun is completely covered, NEVER look directly at the Sun, no matter how small a crescent it is. West Michigan is not in the path of totality so NEVER look directly at it from here. During totality, ALWAYS look directly at the eclipsed Sun, even with binoculars it is safe. Just be sure to STOP LOOKING when totality ends. The best way to observe the partial phases is to project the Sun’s image onto a sheet of white paper with binoculars or a pinhole camera.

Again, all this information can easily be found online. My goal for writing this article is to encourage readers to take the time to travel a few hours to a location where totality can be observed. I guarantee you will not be disappointed by this event, one of the most spectacular sights up in the sky.

This month in history:

June 3: Gemini IV astronaut, Ed White, takes America’s first space walk – 1965
June 5: Regular observations of Neptune begun by Voyager 2 – 1989
June 13: Pioneer 10 leaves solar system to begin its interstellar voyage – 1983
June 16: Valentina Tereshkova first (and only solo) woman in space – 1963
June 21: First privately-funded human space flight, SpaceShipOne, is launched – 2004
June 30: Tunguska impact flattens hundreds of miles of Siberian forrest – 1908