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Solar Eclipses: Did You Know...

by Kevin Kopek

If you’ve been living in a cave the past 6 months, I’m going to give you some big news...There’s going to be a total eclipse of the sun crossing the United States on the 21st of this month. Since you’re a member of an astronomy club, I’m concluding you’ve probably known this for a year or more. But here are a few things you may not know:

• This month’s eclipse is being called “The Great American Eclipse”. One reason is that totality will touch the United States, and no other country. It is also touted that it will be the most watched eclipse in history.

• The eclipse will touch all 50 states. Even Alaska and Hawaii will see a partial eclipse. Honolulu sees the sun 27% obscured just after sunrise. Fairbanks Alaska will see the sun 33% eclipsed.

• Totality first touches the continental United States on the Oregon coast at 10:16 am PDT when the moon takes a bite out of the top of the sun. When it reaches the midsection of the country around 1 pm CDT in Nebraska, the moon first nicks the sun in the 1 o’clock position, and as it reaches South Carolina around 1:15 pm EDT, first contact occurs at the 2 o’clock position. If you are in central New York, the sun will get 66.6% covered by the moon at maximum. First contact will occur about 1:19 pm and the moon’s first bite will be near the 3 o’clock position.

• Maximum eclipse occurs just south of Carbondale, Illinois with 2 minutes, 41 seconds of totality. The length of totality is dependent on the moon’s distance from the Earth. The closer it is, the longer totality lasts. The moon can come as close as (approx.) 221,500 miles at perigee, and it can be as far away as (approx.) 252, 700 miles at apogee. On August 21, the moon will be approximately 233,500 miles away.

• Don’t be too upset if you miss totality due to cloudy skies, or not traveling to the center line for this one. We get another chance April 8, 2024 when totality again crosses the United States, and this time closer to home. This eclipse travels from Mexico and Texas to New York and Canada. Totality lasts a max in the U.S. of 4 minutes 26 seconds at the U.S./Mexico border. Here in New York, we get 3 minutes 45 seconds in Buffalo, 3 minutes 33 seconds in Rochester, 3 minutes 38 seconds in Watertown, and 1 minute and 3 seconds in Syracuse. If you view the eclipse from Utica, you’ll see the sun 99.68% eclipsed. And if you watch from Rome, the sun will be 99.99% eclipsed.

• But you can do even better if you’re looking for a longer totality. On August 12, 2045, a total eclipse will occur along a path that runs parallel to this month’s, but about 300 miles farther south. It first touches land in northern California with 4 minutes 28 seconds of totality and crosses the southern U.S. exiting near Port St Lucie, Florida where totality will last 6 minutes 6 seconds. That’s 28 years away. Personally, I’m going to look for nursing homes and cemeteries along the center line so I can be under the Moon’s shadow then for 6 minutes.

• The 6 minutes 6 seconds of totality is really good, but not the best it can be. Maximum possible totality for the years 2000 to 3000 is 7 minutes 32 seconds. There will be an eclipse that crosses northern South America that has a maximum duration of 7 minutes 29 seconds over the Atlantic, but that one is on July 16, 2186.

• One last thing to think about. Total eclipses will not occur forever. We know that the moon is slipping away from Earth in its orbit at a rate of 1.5 inches per year. At that rate, total solar eclipses will become an on-again, off-again phenomenon in about 600 million years, and the very last eclipse will occur in about 1.2 billion years. So, enjoy this and future ones while you still can.