Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

Return to Newsletter Index

A Solar Double Header

by Perry Pezzolanella

The most beautiful astronomical event of all is a total eclipse of the Sun. It is the ultimate experience to stand in the Moon’s shadow and watch daytime turn into a deep twilight. Birds go to roost, brighter stars come out, and the temperature drops during the day when it is normally bright sunlight. Once a total eclipse of the Sun is experienced, like several MVAS members did in Aruba on February 26, 1998, there is a yearning to see another one. Many people make it their passion and travel the world to see as many as possible, often in such remote places as the South Pacific, Siberia, and Antarctica.

Unfortunately the path of a total solar eclipse is very narrow, often only a few miles wide even though the path may be several thousand miles long. This makes it almost impossible to wait for totality to pass over your town within during your life span making it necessary to travel. The U.S. has had a very long drought of total solar eclipses with the last one occurring on February 26, 1979. Finally the long drought is ending as totality will touch the U.S. mainland twice in a seven-year period.

First up is the long-anticipated total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 where totality comes ashore at Oregon and crosses Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and finally South Carolina. For the eastern U.S., Santee, South Carolina on the shores of Lake Marion on I-95 could be one of the favored areas. The main threat will be afternoon thunderstorms or possible tropical activity since totality in South Carolina will be about 2:30 P.M. Totality on the center line will last about 2 minutes and 40 seconds, which is about a minute shorter than what some of us experienced in Aruba, and that went too quickly! If it is impossible to leave here to see it expect to see a vivid crescent Sun, about 70% eclipsed, well up in the south with the horns pointing downwards. Since this will be the first total eclipse of the Sun in this area in over 38 years, it is expected that all of the motels will be full all along the path of totality. It will be highly photographed and with hydrogen alpha telescopes more common there will be many interesting photos especially during the partial phases. If something happens and this one is not seen, it will not be a decades-long wait for the next one, nor will it be necessary to drive far to see it.

The total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024 is the best of the solar double header and probably the best in our lifetimes as totality will pass just west and north of here and so close that it will take less than an hour to drive into totality. The path of totality enters Texas from Mexico and crosses Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and northern New England. Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse, Watertown, Massena, and Plattsburgh are in the path of totality! It will hopefully be a beautiful spring afternoon as the Moon’s shadow sweeps northeastward around 3:15-3:30 P.M. This eclipse will be worth the short trip as it will last around 3 minutes and 45 seconds on the center line. Buffalo and Rochester will be very close to the center line. Imagine viewing the totally eclipsed Sun above Niagara Falls! If for some reason you cannot leave Utica to see this eclipse, then try and enjoy the Sun looking like a fingernail crescent about 98% eclipsed. Rome will be right on the edge of totality and might enjoy an extended display of Bailey’s Beads as the Moon will not quite cover the Sun. These glittering beads are actually rays of sunlight shining through the valleys between the hills and mountains on the Moon. It could even be possible to see the diamond ring if the Sun is almost completely covered. A diamond ring is the last bead of sunlight of Bailey’s Beads that suddenly becomes very bright before totality begins. The Sun’s glowing chromosphere surrounding the dark Moon gives the ring effect.

For a handful of MVAS members the April 8, 2024 eclipse will hopefully be their third total eclipse, and a second experience for a majority of the MVAS members. If not, it can be safely said that this should be their first solar eclipse. Many may not have the means or income to travel to a total solar eclipse in their lifetimes, so at least 2024 will be convenient. It will be the most photographed and videoed of the pair because it will cross such a large population. Both the 2017 and 2024 eclipses offer an adrenaline rush of anticipation but it comes with a word of advice. For those who are not talented with photography or video, please forget the equipment, and simply relax and use your eyes to enjoy the brief moments of totality. That is what our hardy MVAS member and official total solar eclipse traveler, Al Mlinar, did in Aruba in 1998. A nice simple pair of eclipse glasses made of Mylar for the partial phases and binoculars, or bare eyes, for totality is all he needed to enjoy it, and so will you. Let someone else take that photo or video for you; this is no time to be fumbling with equipment in poor lighting conditions.

You should be able to see the approach of the shadow like a wall of darkness rising up from the horizon moments before totality begins. It is safe to look at the sun once the diamond ring is gone. This is the time to enjoy the prominences and fine structure of the corona that may look like magnetic field lines. Also look at the horizon all the way around and note the brighter glow all along it everywhere you look. Be sure to look for any planets and bright stars, but mainly concentrate on the Sun because totality is all too brief. This is the main reason to skip using equipment if not highly skilled because you will not have time. The return of the diamond ring as totality ends means it is time to use eye protection again. You must use Mylar glasses to observe the rest of the eclipse. After totality the shadow will drop just as fast towards the opposite horizon signaling the end of the excitement as everything returns to normal.

Now you are addicted and you just have to see another one! When is the next one in the U.S.? There will be no more total solar eclipses to come anywhere near Utica for the rest of our lives. Some of us that are young enough can go to Disney World for the next total solar eclipse! Imagine a totally eclipsed Sun above Cinderella’s Castle or Epcot, or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle at Universal Studios! It is true! Totality crosses the Florida peninsula almost perfectly on August 12, 2045, lasting about 6 minutes and 6 seconds, a long one, and occurring around 1:30-2 P.M. With a little luck this author, at age 85, will see his fourth total solar eclipse at his most favorite and happiest place on Earth!