August 21 solar eclipse: Nature’s greatest spectacle is coming to a sky near you

The August 21 solar eclipse is a big astronomical deal. Grand Rapids residents deciding to stay in town will see about 85% of the sun eclipsed by the moon. Whether you're attending the Grand Rapids Public Museum's special Eclipse Party or crafting your own pinhole camera, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you don't want to miss.
The August 21 solar eclipse is a big astronomical deal. In ancient times, most cultures viewed this rare phenomenon with fear. The Vikings thought sky-wolves were eating the sun. Ancient Koreans believed firedogs were stealing it. Hindu tradition speaks of the demon Rahu’s decapitation – his head continued to move through the sky, chasing the sun and moon. An eclipse indicated he had caught and swallowed one or the other.

When Kepler developed the laws of planetary motion in the 1600s, eclipses moved from the realm of myth into the reality of science – and their occurrence has since been calculated. In times past, this meant painstaking hand calculations. Today, computers spit out the data. Even so, solar eclipses continue to excite all who catch a glimpse.

“This eclipse is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many,” says Dave DeBruyn, president of the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association (GRAAA) and curator emeritus of the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium. “For older people, it may be their last, best chance to see nature’s greatest spectacle.”

Grand Rapids residents deciding to stay in town will see about 85% of the sun eclipsed by the moon. However, many resident physicists, astronomers, and confirmed stargazers made plans to travel to the “path of totality” months or even years ago. The closest locales in that path lie in southwestern Kentucky.

“I do want to advise people to plan ahead if you’re trying to get into the path of totality,” DeBruyn says. Google ‘Great American eclipse.’ Keep in mind that the early phases take about one and half hours so you can be a little late. If you double your travel time, then you should be safe.”

DeBruyn is traveling to Nebraska with a group of more than 75 people, including Emily Hromi, director of the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium; a physicist colleague from Denmark; and Thomas Strikwerda, who led the guidance team for the 3-billion mile Horizons expedition to Pluto.

Observers on the ocean view the 1991 eclipse.

“We are gathering at an airfield near Grand Island, Nebraska and hoping for clear skies,” says DeBruyn. “Next week, there will be a mass exodus to this narrow ribbon, about 70 miles wide, that crosses the continent from Oregon to South Carolina. If you’re inside that little ribbon, you’ll see the most dramatic celestial event of all. This is the first time in almost a century when this ribbon of darkness will cross the continent coast-to-coast—and so many highly populated cities are in the path.”

Ross Reynolds, Grand Valley State University professor of physics, also teaches astronomy courses at the university. He’s flying to Washington state to view the eclipse with a group of family and friends. “I’m going to try to enjoy this one more time. Last time (1979), it was cloudy and we were all bummed out. Then, five minutes before totality, we saw a shadow of the curtains on the carpet in our motel room. We ran outside, got all the camera gear out, did all the stuff and in three minutes it was over. I really didn’t have any time to experience it in the frenzy. This time, we’re going to just take binoculars with solar filters and take in the experience.”

In that path of totality, the moon will come into direct alignment with the sun, which is 400 times farther away and 400 times larger than the moon. This alignment very rarely happens from any one location on the surface of the earth, let alone across the expanse of a whole continent. As the moon covers more and more of the sun, an eerie daytime twilight will commence as colors seem to fade and the temperature drops. Birds will return to roost while other diurnal wildlife prepares to sleep, incorrectly sensing that it’s nighttime. Visible as a dark beam reaching down from the sky, the full shadow of the moon will race across the ground faster than the speed of sound.

“One of the things that’s kind of neat, even in Grand Rapids, we might be able to see Venus about 30 degrees, four fists, to the west,” says Reynolds. “In areas where the eclipse is more total, we maybe will even see Mars and Mercury. We seldom see Mercury because it is so close to the sun.”

“We will see that shadows are starting to sharpen and a kind of an eerie, bluish tinge to the landscape. It’s always interesting to look under trees to see little projections of crescent suns on the ground,” adds DeBruyn.

From a scientific standpoint, this solar eclipse will not offer astronomers any great opportunity for new discoveries. The 1919 solar eclipse is regarded as having had the most scientific significance as astronomers note that it was the first phenomenon to prove Einstein’s then relatively new (1905) Theory of Relativity. “Sir Arthur Eddington used the eclipse to confirm Einstein’s predictions by looking at the stars behind the sun,” says Reynolds.

A total solar eclipse does give scientists a chance to observe the corona, the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun. As the corona currently is calm, they won’t see much in the way of solar activity, i.e., flares and loops. Even so, the event has great astronomical significance.

“If we had a simpler solar system, then every new moon would be an eclipse,” Reynolds explains. “The orbital mechanics—the plane of moon’s orbit and the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun— there are inclinations to both of those. Because of those relative inclinations and the moon’s orbit every 29 days, eclipses just don’t happen very often.”

In Western Michigan, with the moon covering roughly 80 to 85% of the sun’s total surface, the solar eclipse will cast an eerie, early twilight starting around 1:30 p.m. and reaching its maximum around 2:21 p.m. The eclipse will remain at this maximum point for a little more than two minutes. “Don’t be texting on your phone or you’ll miss it,” warns Ross.

Even though Grand Rapids does not lie in the path of totality, people viewing the eclipse should not look at it directly. To safeguard vision, a pinhole camera, eclipse glasses, or binoculars with eclipse filters are a must. “Cut a nice, clean pin-hole in one end of a box and tape a piece of white paper on the other end. Position the pinhole toward the sun. You’ll see an image of the eclipse on the paper,” DeBruyn instructs. “For a cleaner image, cut a bigger hole and put aluminum foil over it. Then make the pinhole in the foil.”

For those unable to make the trip into the path of totality, The Grand Rapids Public Museum is hosting a special Eclipse Party , included in the cost of general admission. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. August 21, museum visitors can take part in outdoor, hands-on activities like making eclipse projectors and solar system bracelets, decorating personal eclipse shades and designing and building spacecraft models. On the half hour, the museum’s Chaffee Planetarium will show “Eclipses and Phases of the Moon” while its Meijer Theatre live-streams the total solar eclipse.

“We want to be the place to come prior to and during the eclipse,” Hromi says. “We’ll have eclipse glasses and people will be able to look through telescopes. Other organizations, like the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, the Grand Rapids Symphony, the VanAndel Institute, and Grand Valley State University will take part, too.”

Don’t look for Hromi. As mentioned, she’ll be in Nebraska, a location least likely to have cloud cover. (At the time of this writing, Grand Rapids has a ten-percent chance of cloudy weather, an all-too common phenomena that will render the eclipse nearly a no-show.) While the next solar eclipse will take place in Detroit in April 2024, she doesn’t trust Michigan’s spring weather will ensure that future event is visible. “There are people who spend their lives chasing eclipses—they are quite rare.” she says. “The fact that I am able to see one at quite a young age is exciting.”

According to the Planetarium’s eclipse presentation, which Hromi helped create, the African nations of Benin and Togo had a more positive ancient myth. Their traditions held that an eclipse “occurs when the sun and the moon argue and disagree. The people encourage the sun and the moon to stop fighting, and at the same time, work to resolve their own disagreements with each other."

As the rare 2017 total solar eclipse unites America’s gaze to the heavens, perhaps this is the message each should take to heart.
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