Moon dance: The total solar eclipse of 2017 comes to Prescott (and, you know, everywhere else in the U.S.)

Jul 25, 17 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

“Solar Eclipse,” digital art by Dale O’Dell for 5enses.

By James Dungeon

The last time it happened was Feb. 26, 1979. It’s been more than 38 years since that event: a total solar eclipse visible across the contiguous U.S.

And, on Monday, Aug. 21, you can see it again — hey, stop staring: that’s the Sun! — from right here in good ol’ Prescott.

The partial eclipse lasts two to three hours, though it won’t reach totality here. Prescott’s zenith is a 75 percent eclipse around 10:30 a.m.

There’s a deluge of information about the eclipse online, but if you want to experience some local flair, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better gathering than that hosted by the Prescott Astronomy Club. From 9 a.m. through noon, at the Civic Center Amphitheater, 7501 E. Civic Circle, in P.V., there’ll be presentations, displays, hands-on activities, and more.

Below, Adam England, publicity coordinator for the Prescott Astronomy Club, shares some info about the event.

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What does the Prescott Astronomy Club have in store for the solar eclipse?

The event, itself, is 9 a.m.-noon on Monday, Aug. 21. There’ll be presentations. One is from members of the Prescott Astronomy Clubs with telescopes with filters so people can view the Sun and Moon in real time. There’s also a local photography club who’ll show how to safely photograph the sun before, during, and after an eclipse, as well as any other time, for that matter. There’ll be a PowerPoint presentation from engineering students and professors about the impact of a solar grid across the nation. There’s another about how flora and fauna respond to the darkness of sky during an eclipse. There’s also the live stream from NASA from across the country. There’ll be hands-on projects with eclipse viewers and a raffle, too.

The path of total solar eclipse, Aug. 21, 2017. Image via NASA, public domain.

Will you be able to see the whole thing from this part of the country?

Here in Prescott, we’re only going to see about a 75 percent eclipse of the Sun by the Moon. It’ll never reach totality here. Still, you have to be safe; you’re looking at the sun. You can wear mylar shades or use No. 14 welders glass [Editor’s Note: This is much darker than standard welder’s glass.] Just so you know, even pointing a camera at the Sun basically turns your lens into a magnifying glass and can fry the computer chip in your camera. There are a lot of safe ways to view the eclipse, though.

What’s happening celestially during an eclipse?

Well, an eclipse only happens during a New Moon, when we normally don’t even realize the Moon is out. If the Moon had a perfectly elliptical orbit, we’d have an eclipse every month. But, because it’s slightly oblong, it only happens about two times a year. The majority of the planet is water, so often times it’s only visible in places in the ocean. We’re lucky enough for the Aug. 21 eclipse, though, to be able to see it from coast to coast across the U.S. This is the first time since 1979 that that’s happened.

Why’s an eclipse such a big deal?

Besides the rarity of the event, people, historically, have been witnessing it long before they understood the Earth was round. It was a harbinger of doom or a sign from the gods. Interpretations were either very positive or very negative, depending on the time and place. It’s just a really special thing to see. There are people who travel around the world to chase these things. If you don’t have the resources to do that, hey, there’s one in your own back yard on Aug. 21. While it won’t happen here, when you’re in the totality of it, there’s about three minutes of darkness in the middle of the day. The animals go quiet; plants change as if it were nighttime; it’s a practically unique experience. It can be humbling and very spiritual for some people.

What else can you say about the eclipse, itself.

The path of totality goes across the U.S. from Oregon to Georgia. Just south of Carbondale, Illinois, in a state park, totality will last 2 minutes and 42 seconds, which is the longest in the country. In most places, it’ll last 2.5 minutes. People have been planning trips to places along the path of totality for years in advance. Here, it’ll reach about 75 percent of totality right in the middle of our 9-12 a.m. time frame, at about 10:30 a.m. We’ll have the NASA live feed, too, so you’ll be able to see video of totality. They have a legion of planes and high-altitude balloons that’ll be chasing the shadow of the eclipse across the U.S. No matter what time you come to our event, you’ll be able to see something.

A composite image of photos of the annular eclipse taken in Page, Ariz. in 2012. Photo by Jerry Shaw, of the Prescott Astronomy Club.

You mentioned a speaker about photography. Even with all the professionals out there shooting the eclipse, is there a need for that?

Everybody from amateurs and professional photographers are going to be shooting the event. I suspect every documentary maker will be storing away some footage of it. Every telescope and camera, more or less, will be pointed at the sky. I imagine Facebook will basically explode with eclipse pictures. We didn’t have the technological capabilities we have now 20, or even 10 years ago. It’s another way to interact with the event.

How do you springboard interest in this eclipse into interest in astronomy?

Well, this is a unique event, especially for the younger group of people, and it can instill a lifelong interest in science, astronomy, and technology. That’s why we’re really trying to make this a community event. It doesn’t matter what age you are or what field you come from; it’ll be a fun event and you’ll learn about all different aspects of the eclipse. Historically and culturally, we’ll all be experiencing this together. It’s also a way to introduce or reintroduce the Prescott Astronomy Club to people from all walks of life. You don’t have to be a professional scientist or astronomer to be part of our club or enjoy astronomy.

In preparing for this event, what did you learn about the eclipse that you didn’t know prior?

Well, in addition to learning about the percentage of eclipses moving across the country, there’s how quickly and slowly the shadow of the moon moves. Earth is not flat and the orbit isn’t flat, so the shadow speeds up and slows down as it goes across the planet at speeds of 1,700 mph to 2,700 mph. As a result, it’s a quicker or longer eclipse based off of the ways those features interact.

Adam England, publicity coordinator for the Prescott Astronomy Club, courtesy photo.

Do you remember the first time you saw an eclipse?

I was in elementary school, probably third or fourth grade. We all went outside and made pinhole viewers at Miller Valley School. We had black pieces of paper with a hole in them and, on another piece of paper, you could see the shadow start to creep across it. It looked like a clipped off fingernail. It was really neat.

What effect did that have on you?

I was hooked on astronomy right then. I used to get up in the middle of the night to look at meteor showers. My mom joked with me about it and I used to make her get up and watch them with me. I’ve picked up more toys as an adult, now, but still enjoy it. The first time I saw the rings of Saturn with a telescope, that was another important moment that stands out.

Will the maximum 75 percent eclipse here affect the visibility of other stars or have any other peripheral effects?

You know, 75 percent sounds like a lot for most instances in our daily lives, but as far as the Sun goes, that’s not that much. If you didn’t look up, you probably wouldn’t notice there was an eclipse going on.

Any parting thoughts?

We’ve got so many different groups from the community and some corporate sponsors. We’re so thankful for that. … It’ll be another warm day in Arizona, so we’d recommend sunscreen and sunglasses — whatever you’d normally have outdoors in Arizona — and there’ll be free water. Also, the local higher education groups from Embry-Riddle and Yavapai College have been really great. Overall, we’re just excited about this opportunity and sharing this amazing event.

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The Prescott Astronomy Club’s celebration of the solar eclipse is 9 a.m.-noon Monday, Aug. 21, at the PV Civic Center Amphitheater, 7501 E. Civic Circle. Call 928-759-6188 with questions. Find out more at PrescottAstronomyClub.Org.

There’s a luxury of resources about and for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse. Two websites worth visiting are NASA’s, at Eclipse2017.NASA.Gov, and the American Astronomical Society’s, at Eclipse.AAS.Org.

James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.

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Field notes on, from a reporter at large

This month’s cover is a digital illustration of the Total Solar Eclipse that that occurs later this month. 5enses has gone to great expense to send a reporter/photographer to Nebraska for the momentous event. Our intrepid reporter will be among the expected 10,000-person throng out on the prairie of Central Nebraska with his camera and protective eclipse glasses. Risking retina-burning and camera sensor-frying sunlight, he’ll be photographing the eclipse and its totality, and he’ll be reporting on the thousands and thousands of people sharing this rare event.
Our reporter: “I’ll be driving 1,000 for a two and a half minute photo shoot! This will be the most photographed American eclipse ever – there will be zillions of photos online within minutes of fourth contact. But, aside from the photography, I’m there for the experience. Sharing the unique astronomical experience with thousands of like-minded people will be incredible, especially in a country whose majority ruling party and president don’t support science.”
A full year before the eclipse, motel rooms in small towns in the path of the moon’s shadow began selling out. Reservations have been made for people coming to middle-America from far-flung places like Greece, Germany, Japan, and China. This eclipse is truly Woodstock for the science-minded.
Next month, 5enses reveals exactly where our reporter will be and the October issue will feature his full report. Stay tuned for more.

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