Celestial News: The Great American Eclipse — epilogue
September 7, 2017
Where were you Aug. 21, when the sun went dark? Did you make it into the zone of totality? Millions of people did, all across the United States.
I was in the small town of Victor, Idaho, just across the Teton mountain range from Jackson, Wyoming, and right on the centerline of the eclipse. I had rented a spot on a secluded lot, away from the huge crowds that were expected to fill the town.
The sky was perfectly clear on the morning of the eclipse, and I had telescopes and cameras ready to go. When the sun was about 3/4 covered by the moon, I was able to see the planet Venus shining brightly high overhead. About that same time, the air became noticeably cooler, and the landscape began to take on an unnatural, silvery hue. Shadows became sharp and crisp as the sun was reduced to a tiny slit, peeking around the edge of the moon. Thousands of eclipse crescents shimmered on the ground under the trees.
When the last bead of sunlight created a breathtaking diamond ring and the sun's corona flashed into view, there was an audible chorus of cheers that rose up from the thousands of people scattered around the town for miles around.
Darkness fell in an instant. I was running through my carefully pre-choreographed sequence of exposures to catch as much detail in the Sun's prominences and corona as possible. I took a few seconds to glance through my binoculars at the spectacle overhead, then returned to the telescope and camera for my final sequence. Before I knew it, the sun burst back into view in the final diamond ring, and the total eclipse was over. That was the fastest 2 minutes and 20 seconds in history.
This was my seventh total solar eclipse since 1970, the sixth one being way back in 1991, but it was my first using a digital camera for photography. Instead of sending rolls of film off to Kodak to be processed and not knowing for days how my eclipse photos turned out, my results were instantaneous. As I scrolled through the photos in the camera taken moments before, I was speechless at what had been captured. Hot pink prominences towered over the edge of the sun, and minute details in the sun's 10-million degree corona were captured as never before. My careful planning and rehearsals paid off big time.
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Many first-timers I spoke with after the e
clipse admitted that they were now hooked and couldn't wait until the next opportunity to see a total eclipse of the sun. If you are one of these born again eclipse chasers, here is what you have to look forward to in the coming years:
The next total eclipse of the sun will be visible on July 2, 2019 from southern South America, including parts of Chile and Argentina. This eclipse will provide four minutes and 32 seconds of totality, nearly twice as long as our recent eclipse.
On Dec. 14, 2020, the moon will again cast its shadow across southern South America, giving folks in Chile and Argentina their second total eclipse in only 18 months. This one will last for only 2 minutes and 10 seconds.
On Dec. 4, 2021, a brief total eclipse lasting only 1 minute and 54 seconds will be visible from Antarctica. This is one for you really hard-core eclipse chasers.
April 8, 2024, is the date you'll want to keep in mind for the next opportunity to view a total solar eclipse from the United States. Totality for this eclipse will last for up to 4 minutes and 28 seconds, again, nearly twice as long as last month's spectacle. The path of the moon's shadow will sweep over central Texas and move northeastward across parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Parts of Mexico and the maritime provinces of Canada will also get into the act.
Start making your travel plans now for April 8, 2024. As many of you learned from our recent total eclipse experience, hotels, motels and campgrounds along the eclipse path fill up months, even years, in advance, and the closer it is to eclipse time, the higher the rates will go.
Jimmy Westlake recently retired from Colorado Mountain College, after 19 years as professor of physical sciences and is looking forward to spending a lot more time under the starry sky. His “Celestial News” column appears in Steamboat Today monthly. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.