Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Be a Part of It!

by Perry Pezzolanella

Those little town snowbanks are melting away and it is time to make it big by seeing the best astronomical event of them all, a total eclipse of the Sun and you do not have to leave New York State! Only two months from now, on Monday, April 8, 2024, a total eclipse of the Sun will finally touch New York State for the first time since January 24, 1925. A narrow band of totality, about 124 miles wide, will stretch from Texas to Maine. Totality will pass through Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Totality will last 4 minutes and 26 seconds at best and that will be in Texas near the Mexican border, which is better than the 2 minutes and 40 seconds in Illinois during the 2017 eclipse. In New York the longest will be in Buffalo right on the centerline at 3 minutes and 45 seconds, only falling off slightly to 3 minutes and 33 seconds on the centerline in Plattsburgh where the shadow leaves the state. For a handful of Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society members including myself, this will be the third total eclipse of the Sun after witnessing our first in Aruba on February 26, 1998, and then the Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017. Those who experienced these eclipses were lucky blessed with nice weather during the moment of totality but caught eclipse fever! There is no cure for this condition and the only treatment is seeing another total solar eclipse for brief relief. Unfortunately, most total eclipses are remote requiring extensive travel and expense, with some as far away as Antarctica!

This year it will be easier to observe totality as it will pass over some of the homes and observatories of MVAS members, but most of us will have to travel, however not too far and a great excuse for a day trip. The only spoiler could be the weather - after nearly a week of beautiful sunny weather in Aruba it came very close to being clouded out. The feeling of gloom was so intense that it is best forgotten, but it cleared up in time just as the first bite of the Sun was taken out. My mother and I had good luck in Santee, South Carolina in 2017 as a tropical depression remained offshore and the afternoon cumulus clouds rapidly dissipated as the sunlight faded. The following is what might unfold based on my experiences in Aruba and Santee:

The crowd will cheer as the first bite is taken out of the Sun. An eerie light will fall over the landscape as the Sun becomes a thin crescent and birds will begin to roost as the light fades. The diminishing level of sunlight will be slow at first as it softens but will dim dramatically in the final five minutes leading up to totality, and temperatures will drop. The brighter planets and stars will begin to appear. A dark, dusky band will appear on the horizon in the west and rise rapidly moments before totality like a rising storm cloud. This is the Moon’s shadow and at that moment the Sun will look briefly like a diamond ring, or a series of bright beads known as Baily’s Beads (use eye protection!). The crowd will cheer wildly, fireworks might go off, and automatic lights will turn on. All too suddenly totality will arrive and an eerie twilight, not quite night, bathes the landscape. An eerie orange glow will surround the horizon in every direction through which a few brighter planets and stars may shine. The Moon will be the darkest object in the sky as it blocks the Sun, but will you be able to see the “Man in the Moon” faintly illuminated by earthshine? It is safe to look directly at the delicate white streamers radiating from the totally eclipsed Sun curving like a giant magnetic field along with fiery pinkish prominences poking out from behind the Moon. It is very emotional to see all of this with your own eyes. Binoculars will help see finer detail and are safe to use during totality only. All too soon a rising orange band will appear in the western sky ending totality. Shadows return, birds start to sing, the excitement eases to happiness, lights turn off, and it will grow steadily warmer as sunlight brightens slowly back to normal. It will then be time for the favorite ritual for all eclipse chasers, including us when we were in Aruba, and that is to party! It was a fun dinner at a special place near the sea with drinks, laughing, happiness, and sharing our experiences of how each of us felt at the moment of totality! For my mother and me in Santee it was dinner at Cracker Barrel nearby with the same wonderful feeling and she said the experience of seeing totality was even better than all her trips to Disney World!

You have done a lot of research and probably decided to travel beyond New York and spent plenty of hard-earned money to position yourself in the path of totality. Here are a few tips even for those of us staying closer to home and a warning or two to help make it a fond memory:

Travel to your destination several days in advance. Since this is a Monday eclipse, it is strongly suggested that you plan to arrive during the weekend. You will need some time to rest, and get adjusted to the people, food, weather, transportation, and terrain. If you witnessed the 2017 eclipse, felt comfortable with your routine and it worked, then you are good.

Find your eclipse site no later than the day before the eclipse and plan to arrive at the site several hours before first contact, instead of during the partial phases. Use Google Maps, Street View, and travel with someone, especially if it is going to be their first total solar eclipse. It will make the experience very special, almost like them opening your special present on Christmas morning!

Once you are set up, stay there regardless of the weather. Eclipse chasers will panic if the weather turns ominous, which could create dangerous driving and congestion. You may not be able to return to your site if the weather improves since local authorities could put up roadblocks, which they did in Santee along with closing the nearby I-95 rest area as it overflowed with people. We stayed put at our selected site on the southern tip of Aruba when the weather threatened, and it was a smart move as those who bailed out and traveled north where it was clear ended up battling clouds while we cleared out nicely. Weather can change rapidly, and the decreasing sunlight of an eclipse can often dissipate clouds as the atmosphere cools off.

Prepare a checklist of what you need to bring with you just like any other vacation as you will probably be away from home for several days. Also bring a checklist of what you hope to see as the eclipse unfolds. A checklist of eclipse events follows this article.

Finally, if you cannot resist the urge to photograph and/or video the eclipse, then you must practice using your camera or camcorder in a poorly lit room months before the eclipse as totality is as dim as deep twilight. Make sure everything works and you are thoroughly knowledgeable with your equipment. Be sure to have spare batteries. This is the era of smart phones, so it may be easier to photograph totality without missing precious time looking away from the eclipse to adjust settings, but you will be highly excited!

Remember that it is safe to look at the eclipse with your eyes and binoculars (and telescopes) during totality—but ONLY during totality! It is DANGEROUS to look at the Sun when it is partially eclipsed, even a thin crescent, and even during the moment of the diamond ring. Proper solar filters, or a #14 welder’s glass, are fine to use, or project the image of the Sun on paper.

Another word of warning: YOU WILL EXPERIENCE AN EMOTIONAL RUSH AS THE SHADOW APPROACHES THAT WILL CAUSE JITTERS AND MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO CONCENTRATE ON ANYTHING! It will come and go so fast that, if you are fumbling with equipment, you will miss what is going to be the most beautiful astronomical event in your life! Someone else will capture totality and post it on the web for all to savor if it does not go as planned for you. I have been among crowds that have had tons of equipment and feel that many people miss the beauty of totality viewed with their own eyes. What a moment of awe to just simply relax and look up with your own eyes during those precious few minutes of totality like my mother did. Our very own club member, Al Mlinar, also did it the right way - totality with eyes and binoculars only, and we can never forget him talking about it, the streamers and the flaming pinkish-orange seahorse prominence peaking out behind the black Moon!

So be a part of it in Upstate New York where, if you can see it here, you can see it anywhere, within the path of totality, weather permitting. It is up to you and Mother Nature to make this the number one, top of the list astronomical event of all!