Everything You Need To Know About the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Composite of the sun before, during, and after a total eclipse (Image credit: Babak Tafreshi, National Geographic Creative).

Unless you’ve taken up residence inside a dark, subterranean bunker with no internet access, you’ve probably heard of The Great American Eclipse. Hailed as “spiritual,” “life-changing,” “exhilarating,” and even “an obsession,” astronomical phenomena like today’s total eclipse are pretty cool, for reasons both scientific and spectacular.

Also heliophysicists, umbraphiles, citizen scientists…the list of eclipse enthusiasts goes on and on (Gif credit: Giphy).

So, if all these enticing descriptions left you hankering for a last-minute celestial fix, look no further. With less than 1 hour left before the moon plunges the continental U.S. into varying degrees of darkness, it’s time for a crash-course into the what, why, and how of The Great American Eclipse.

Corona from the 2015 Svalbard solar eclipse composed of 29 images (Image credit: M. Druckmüller, S. Habbal, P. Aniol, and P. Starha, U of Hawaii).

So much science, so little time! Here are some quick FAQs to give you a basic background on today’s astronomical spectacle.

Why is this eclipse so special?

For the first time in 99 years, an eclipse will traverse the continental U.S. from sea to shining sea. In case you were wondering how rare this is, only two other moons in the entire solar system can also produce a total solar eclipse (however, those moons orbit Saturn, which doesn’t even have a solid surface from which to watch eclipses). Don’t believe it? Check out the math behind the conclusion here!

Gif credit: Skunk Bear, YouTube.

Sounds pretty neat. When will it occur?

For a visual of how the solar eclipse will behave, head over to Vox to find out when it will start, peak, and end based on your zip code.

How handy! But I’m still wondering about where I should be for a maximum eclipse viewing experience?

If you want to experience the “spiritual” and “life-changing” event mentioned earlier, it’s best to head towards the thin, gray ribbon charted out below by NASA. Although everyone in the contiguous U.S. plus some people in South America, Africa, and Europe will see a partial solar eclipse, only 14 lucky states boast a slice of totality, where the moon’s shadow will cause up to two minutes and 40.2 seconds of darkness.

Image credit: NASA.

I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about how staring into a 10,000 degree ball of fire might roast your eyes in their sockets. What are some quick “don’ts” you recommend for protecting my precious vision?

  • DON’T look directly at the sun when part of its bright face is still visible. This is especially important if you are not in the path of totality. Everyone outside of totality will experience only a partial solar eclipse, where it is not safe to look at the sun under any circumstances.
  • DON’T use sunglasses or really any glasses besides eclipse glasses (hence the name). For a safe eclipse experience, you need some heavy-duty, ISO-certified eyewear that lets in only 0.003 percent of visible light, not Grandma’s prescription lenses.
  • DON’T use a welder’s mask unless it uses welder’s glass in a Shade 14 filter. See point above.
  • DON’T wear damaged or scratched eclipse glasses. That’s just asking for trouble.
  • DON’T take off your eyeglasses to put on eclipse glasses if your vision isn’t 20/20. An eclipse is a rare display of our solar system’s impressive clockwork, so be sure to put your eclipse glasses on over your eyeglasses for a safe, crisp viewing experience.
  • Please, please DON’T look at the sun through a telescope or binoculars while wearing solar eclipse glasses. The concentrated light can burn through the protective filters and your retinas because — you guessed it — the sun is a deadly laser.
Image credit: NASA.

Help! I’m broke and/or a procrastinator who couldn’t scrounge up eclipse glasses for the life of me. Have I destroyed my one chance to achieve true happiness?

Have no fear, DIY alternatives are here! Keeping the “don’ts” from above in mind, there are plenty of safe ways to view a solar eclipse without special equipment. Check out this awesome post over at Science Friday for a list of options that all take less than 15 minutes to make.

No eclipse glasses? No need to despair! (Gif credit: Warby Parker, Giphy).

What’s the weather forecast for the eclipse?

So far, so good. Although cloudy weather can slightly obscure the solar eclipse, updated weather reports found here are predicting good things for most areas in the U.S. If even the slightest cloud cover crimps your eclipse-watching style, however, head over to Rexburg, Idaho or Casper, Wyoming for the best chance of crystal-clear skies.

Image credit: NASA.

Darn! I can’t leave my dark, subterranean bunker anytime soon. Can I still catch a glimpse of this awesome solar spectacle?

Hurry on over to NASA’s live stream NOW! Just in case this effort devolves into a series of violent confrontations with an outdated version of Adobe Flash Player, Science Channel will also be airing live streams on TV. However, I would advise you to tunnel to freedom first — this is an event you want to witness in-person!

How do scientists celebrate this awe-inducing event that shakes all living organisms on a molecular level?

Glad you asked! Scientists nurture a special love for this type of event, which reminds us all of the beautiful geometry and precise clockwork guiding our tenuous existence. Lots of projects are scheduled to go live during the eclipse, with more details listed here at Science Friday.

Still a better love story than Twilight (Gif credit: Warby Parker, Giphy; Image credit: Yesmovies).
Image credit: Ian Dyer, VWPics via AP.

Before you pack your bags and make the pilgrimage to the path of totality, we need to review three key conditions that make solar eclipses possible:

(1) The moon goes through a phase.

Like any moody adolescent or tantrum-prone toddler, the moon tends to cycle through lunar phases based on its orbit relative to the Earth. For a solar eclipse to take place, the dark side of the moon must directly face the Earth. This is called its “new moon” phase.

Gif credit: Giphy.

(2) The stars align.

As Shakespearean as it sounds, all eclipses — lunar or solar; partial or total — require the movement of one heavenly body into the shadow of another heavenly body to occur. Although it is guided by science rather than by fate, the perfect alignment of the Earth, moon, and sun (a phenomenon termed syzygy) remains nothing short of miraculous.

Given that the moon normally travels an off-kilter course, its orbit normally doesn’t align with the plane of Earth’s orbit. However, during an eclipse, the moon visits one of two special points along its orbit where it will achieve syzygy and condemn some patch of our planet to complete and utter darkness. As fate would have it, these two points are considered by scientists to be products of celestial coincidence.

Gif credit: Giphy.

(3) Then some space rocks get cozy.

Although there are no chunky knit sweaters or mugs of hot cocoa in the cold vastness of space, the Earth and moon have to achieve a certain level of mathematical coziness for a total solar eclipse to occur. Although the sun and moon appear to be the same size to an observer on the ground during an eclipse, the sun is actually 400 times larger than the moon.

To compensate, the moon zips along its elliptical orbit until it reaches a point where it is closest to the Earth and farthest away from the sun. By recalibrating its distance relative to Earth, the moon orients itself so that the sun is now 400 times farther away from Earth than the moon. This intense mathematical wizardry on the moon’s part evens the playing field, making it seem like the moon is the same size as the sun.

Gif credit: The Simpsons, Giphy.

Once these three conditions are satisfied, you end up with something like this:

Gif credit: NASA, Giphy.
Image credit: Colleen Pinski, National Geographic Your Shot.

Feeling awestruck? Excited? Energized? Great — listed below are seven ways to channel that enthusiasm into action:

(1) HamSCI (Virginia Tech/New Jersey Institute of Technology) — this project studies the Earth’s ionosphere, a layer 50 to 600 miles above the planet’s surface, to see how radio waves are refracted and then picked up by radio receivers in laptops or smartphones during a solar eclipse. Give them a hand!

(2) EclipseMob VLF/LF Experiment — this project will develop the first geographically-resolved set of low-frequency skywave propagation observations to investigate ionization and recombinant behaviors in the ionosphere. Pitch in at EclipseMob!

(3) Citizen CATE (National Scholar Observatory) — this experiment will stitch together a 90-minute composite film of the sun’s corona to investigate its plasma dynamics. If you’re hanging out along the path of totality today, help them by snapping a few photos and submitting them to Eclipse Megamovie!

(4) The QuantumWeather Project — this project will measure surface and lower atmosphere changes during the eclipse to analyze how these conditions may affect regional electricity grids. If this piques your interest, check out their project here and contact the project leader, Dr. Pasken, with any questions!

(5) Life Responds (CA Academy of Sciences) — this work will observe how plants and animals change their behavior during a total solar eclipse. Get the iNaturalist App to share your observations with Life Responds!

(6) Eclipse Soundscapes — this project will record the auditory reactions of animals during totality. Sign up here to help create a “rumble map” generating 3D sound for eclipse enthusiasts who cannot see.

(7) Globe Observer — this research will collect temperature data from before, during, and after totality to assess how the moon’s shadow causes temperatures here on Earth to drop. Record data using the Globe Observer app sponsored by NASA!

Happy eclipse watching! (Gif credit: Warby Parker, Giphy).

Works Cited:

Bakich, Michael. “25 facts you should know about the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse.” Astronomy Magazine, Kalmbach Publishing Co., 5 Aug. 2014, cs.astronomy.com/asy/b/astronomy/archive/2014/08/05/25-facts-you-should-know-about-the-august-21–2017-total-solar-eclipse.aspx. Accessed 16 Aug. 2017.

Kohl, Holli Riebeek. “How Cool Is the Eclipse?” The Globe Program, NASA, observer.globe.gov/science-connections/eclipse2017. Accessed 15 Aug. 2017.

Resnick, Brian. “Total solar eclipse 2017: everything you need to know.” Vox
 Vox Media, 18 Aug. 2017, www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/7/25/15925410/total-solar-eclipse-2017-explained. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.

St. Fleur, Nicholas, et al. “How to Watch a Solar Eclipse.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, www.nytimes.com/guides/science/how-to-watch-a-solar-eclipse?emc=edit_nn_20170820&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=73230848&te=1. Accessed 12 Aug. 2017.

Young, Lauren J. “The Science Conducted Under The Darkness Of The Total Eclipse.” Science Friday, Blue Cadet, 11 Aug. 2017, www.sciencefriday.com/articles/experiments-of-the-great-american-eclipse/. Accessed 16 Aug. 2017.

— Sophia S., Pennsylvania


Be a part of our conversation: on Twitter @ScienceTeens; on Instagram at scienceteens; and on Snapchat at march4science.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Sophia Swartz’s story.