Eclipse FAQ

When it comes to learning about the upcoming Great American Eclipse, there are no stupid questions. Well, maybe these:

Isn’t it too dark at night to see the eclipse?

If the solar eclipse is so dangerous to look at, why are they having it?

And this, as seen on a t-shirt: “I wanted to watch the eclipse but the stupid moon got in the way.”

A real live astronomer will be a guest at the Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally, and will answer questions about the celestial event of the summer.

What would you like to know but are embarrassed to ask? I’ll find out and report back. Ain’t no shame if you’re wondering if you’ll see the moon like it looks on the stamp, why the path travels from west to east, how you’ll be able to see totality with your eclipse glasses on, and why sunglasses won’t keep you from going blind.

Here’s an example of an interesting question I found online, from an astrophotographer who’ll attempt to photograph totality:

Does the size of the sun vary from one place to another? If someone in Australia took an unzoomed, unmagnified picture of the sun, would the area of the sun be equal to a photo taken, say, in Norway?

I have no idea why this has any bearing on astrophotography, but okay. Hmm.

Related: and I’m not too proud to say this out loud. How does the lunar eclipse path differ from the normal process of the phases of the moon? NO LAUGHING. Someone demonstrated this to me once using a lime, a lemon, and a tennis ball. It made sense then, but it didn’t stick.

My favorite question—to which I’ve heard only unsatisfactory answers—is this: does a total eclipse take place on any other planet? Yes, two moons of Saturn in our own solar system might produce an extremely inferior version of what we experience on Earth—but to our knowledge there are no others. (“In the vastness of the universe certainly there must be” doesn’t count.) Now for the follow up question (chill, anti-intelligent designers): what are the odds? Earthlings rely on one sun and one moon—one is 400 times larger than the other, and the other is 400 times farther away—making their discs in the sky the same size, allowing for a total eclipse. Wait, there’s more: what are the continued odds that Earth is the only planet we know of on which sentient, self-aware beings reside, who are able to appreciate the spectacle? Mind blown. 

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Eclipse safety

The multiple warnings about not looking directly at the sun seem peculiar.

I mean, really? “Don’t look at the sun” is akin to “don’t hold your hand over a flame” or any other dangerous and painful act that would be ludicrous to do and impossible to sustain. Common sense dictates against such a practice (but judging from recent events in our culture, common sense is at a premium).

I couldn’t help but wonder (Carrie Bradshaw style)…is this really a problem? Turns out it is. According to LiveScience.com, total blindness is rare, but you might be in danger of contracting “solar retinopathy”—aka photic retinopathy, foveomacular retinitis, solar retinitis, and eclipse retinopathy—resulting in temporary to permanent blurriness or a blind spot at the center of your vision.

“Eclipse blindness” is caused when ultraviolet light overwhelms your retina, located at the back of your eye where the photosensing cells that allow you to see are located. During the deep partial phases of the eclipse when sunlight dims it can be tempting to sneak a peek, and the damage at that point is delivered without pain and when protective reflexes (like blinking and pupil contraction) are slacking off.

Solar retinopathy can occur at any point during the partial phase—including the final seconds before totality—and the most important reason to shield your eyes occurs in the very last two or three seconds before blackout: looking directly at the sun during this time can cause temporary vision distortion that can bork your enjoyment of the scant, precious minutes of totality.

Many people don’t understand that you must look at the sun with the naked eye after Second Contact, and the trick for a first time eclipse viewer is to know when to whip those eclipse shades off in time to see the entry phenomenon like Bailey’s beads and the diamond ring. Stay calm, and keep your glasses on until you’re sure it’s safe. (The sound effects coming from those around you will alert you that totality has occurred.) Rest assured that you’ll get a good long look at the ring and the beads in reverse order at Third Contact. Don’t risk blurry eyesight during the big event by removing your shades too soon.

It’s optimal if there’s a coach in the area to let you know what to do. This video is an example of the phenomena countdown by Jay Anderson, meteorologist aboard the expedition ship Orion in the Great Barrier Reef with (TravelQuest, Nov. 13, 2012). Some find spoken words distracting, but I think it adds to the thrill.

I love looking at the eclipse safety posters and flyers that local governments distribute—like the ones at the end of this post.

Your options

The only safe way to look directly at the partially eclipsed sun is through special purpose filters such as “eclipse glasses” or my uber-dorky #14 welder’s goggles.

The popular paper eclipse glasses you’ve seen are made with optical density 5 “black polymer” material that filters out harmful ultra-violet, infrared, and intense visible light. Look for brands made in the USA (beware of overseas knock-offs) and that state they are CE certified and meet ISO standards. I recommend Rainbow Symphony, manufacturer of our custom Blackout Rally shades. I’m told American Paper Optics and Thousand Oaks Optical are two other reliable manufacturers.

What’s true for your eyeballs is true for the devices you look through. Do not look at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun through an unprotected camera, telescope, or binoculars—and don’t use these things while wearing your eclipse shades, either. The intensified solar rays will damage the filter and enter your eye. (Gad, this is getting scarier and scarier, isn’t it? You’’ll be happy to know that your own prescription eyeglasses are safe to use with eclipse shades or a solar-filtered telescope.) Both your eyes and your optical device need their own filter. Pointing an unprotected telescope directly at the sun can also result in the unfortunate melting of the plastic parts that hold the internal instruments together.

Oh, and don’t make your own filter like some hillbilly. Black plastic trash bags, balloons, camera film (WTF is that), or three pairs of sunglasses worn together won’t bar ultraviolet light.

Eclipse shades make a great souvenir of the experience; I have a small collection and the ones from Egypt are my favorite.

You’ll be able to put your hands on a pair of eclipse shades pretty easily before August 21, but order online soon. Alternatives to the standard style include hand-held viewers, magnification viewers (like the Celestron EclipSmart™ power viewer) and even wacky ones that let you look like an astronaut or an alien.

The weakest technique of all is the pinhole projection, but it’s fun to do to pass the time during the boring partial phases before and after totality. Here’s how:

  • Use two sheets of cardboard (stiff white paper, even two paper plates)
  • Make a tiny, round, smooth hole in the middle of one sheet using a thumbtack, a sharp pin, or a needle
  • Stand with your back to the sun, and hold up the paper with the hole.
  • The second sheet of paper serves as a screen for the projected image. Do you see a little crescent shadow? That’s the inverted image of the sun coming through the pinhole.
  • Experiment: make the image of the sun larger by moving the pinhole paper closer to the sun.
  • Anything with “holes” can be a pinhole projector: a straw hat, your loosely crossed hands, etc. Find a nearby tree and look at the ground below: the leaves will create hundreds of crescent projections.

Check out this excellent 4+ minute video courtesy of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Solar Eclipse Task Force and the American Institute of Physics. It will tell you everything you need to know about eclipse safety.

Above: #14 welder’s glasses. Below: Blackout Rally shades; Egypt souvenir (what does that hieroglyphic say, “scram, tourist”?); handheld viewer, solarscope (I have no idea what this does); PowerViewer; alien shades; pinhole hands.

 

The Great American Eclipse, August 2017

If you’re a North American who isn’t living under a rock you know about #TSE2017—and I could ride my bike there.

Ha ha! JK. I’m not riding my bike 21 miles. But the edge of totality falls across Redmond, Oregon on August 21, 2017 at the northernmost edge of Roberts Field airport, just up the highway from my home in Bend.

Coincidence? I think not. Even the weak Kallawalla mystic would say it’s predictable that I live in the path of totality, a quarter of a century from experiencing my first total solar eclipse.

People ‘round these parts say they remember the Northwest eclipse of 1979—no they don’t. It was clouded out. (Disagree? Let’s see your corona shot. Yeah, I thought so.)

On eclipse day I will not be driving from my house—gridlock will grip highways 97 and 26 on the weekend before August 21st and traffic to the path from all directions will be slower than the Bend Broadband wireless network.

I’ll be at the Oregon Airstream Club Blackout Rally on the shore of Lake Simtustus, the reservoir behind Pelton Dam, in a sea of silver among my fellow Airstreamers.

Below: Lake Simtustus site; position of the sun at first contact on August 21; Great American path

 

Great Barrier Reef

Oh, the eclipse? *yawn* Just another breathtaking miracle of nature.

The sky was blue and the Orion steady on eclipse day, following two grueling days on choppy seas to return to the calm waters over the Great Barrier Reef near Port Douglas.

Jay Anderson—meteorologist, astrophotographer, and co-author of the NASA eclipse bulletins with Fred Espenak—commanded a microphone and walked us through the timeline of events. Meet Jay in this video and hear his play by play (“filters off!” “shadow bands behind you!”). Jay also consulted with the captain and special reef pilot who was brought on board to guide the Orion over the Reef and ensure the best viewing area.

Thanks to his coaching I got my goggles on and off in time to witness all the phenomena. Baily’s beads were meh but we saw the best. diamond. ring. EVER. The prominence flames were higher than I’ve ever seen them too.

At third contact many beers (Corona, natch) were consumed, followed by brunch on deck and a how-was-it-for-you debriefing session in the Leda Lounge for the relieved and excited chasers. Most of them were either first time virgins—virgins no longer!—or had just racked up their 10th or 15th TSE. Me?

Six for six, and counting.

The moments on deck are captured in this 5-minute video. If you’re hoping to see the eclipsed sun itself, lower your expectations: this captures the minutes leading up to totality on deck, and before and after reactions. (Here’s a 3-minute video of totality—again, no sun, but you’ll see the sky go dark and brighten at third contact.

Above: Diamond ring photo via Snapfish, taken from the Paul Gauguin, July 10, 2010

Below:

Scenes on board the Orion, November 13, 2012.

Variety of customized gadgetry, including scope “squint” aids and fancy pinhole projection art.

TravelQuest founder and president Aram Kaprielian. (Is there a bigger smile than the one on the tour director after a cloudless TSE?)

 

Island hopping

In 2012, 60,000 people descended on Cairns for the TSE. Ninety of us sailed away for awhile to visit the Papua New Guinea people in their secluded villages.

With expedition natural scientists as our guides we watched locals dig for Megapode eggs, laid in the ash leftover from the still-active Tavurvur volcano eruption.

We were led into remote Watam Village, where there’s no wifi—or roads, or phones, or electricity—by an ostentatious ceremonial dragon dance and witnessed “sing sing” cultural performances at every historic, scenic, mind-blowing location.

We were shown how to make pasty palm sago, the local staple that can baked into a pancake-like bread. We sailed through fjords (not just for Norway anymore) and boarded hand-carved outrigger canoes, paddled by willowy young girls, to get to villages deep in the jungle. We saw flying bat colonies and “yam houses” and masks of human bone. By the way, the people of Papua New Guinea stopped practicing headhunting and cannibalism, oh, gosh, months ago.

My favorite people were the lusty Kitava from the Trobriand Islands. When colonial rulers came to stop the inter-island warring in the 1800s they were aghast to see the suggestive thrusting and pointing during the ceremonial Kitavan dances. The Europeans introduced them to cricket as a means to channel their competitive fighting and ribald desires. Unfazed, the enthusiastic islanders just substituted a violent cricket rivalry—and used their vulgar dances anyway as a victory celebration to taunt the opposing teams.

The Orion also supplied sea kayak and snorkel gear, taught passengers how to use it, and ferried everyone via Zodiac boat to private coves to swim in the reefs and enjoy barbecue lunches on white sandy beaches. “Big Dave”, my new friend on board (and expert diver) taught me to snorkel on Nuratu Island. Underwater it was like an aquarium in a tropical fish store. The hardcore divers on board said it was the best snorkeling they’d ever experienced.

Life on the Orion

It was a wedding gift of sorts. Two months after we married, Ralph sent me on my own to join another TravelQuest eclipse tour, this time on the glamorous expedition ship Orion. The dream itinerary: a private charter flight from Cairns Australia to Papua New Guinea to join the Orion for nine days—a ship small enough to carry passengers to several remote villages—and a grand finale, totality at the Great Barrier Reef.

The intimate Orion (90 passengers, 75 crew) came equipped with kayaks, Zodiac landing craft (many of our ports were “wet landings”), and diving and snorkeling gear. The professional expedition staff included a marine biologist, acclaimed wildlife photographer Sue Flood, a field biologist, meteorologist Jay Anderson, planetary scientist and former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones, and a cultural anthropologist—an Aussie who married into a PNG village and actually became a chief, who knew everyone and all the local customs.

Each day at sea there were workshops and lectures on the flora and fauna of PNG, space travel, photography, and a cultural briefing on the islands we would visit—all accompanied with drinks and traypass hors d’oevres. The food—three squares a day plus high tea and assorted cocktail parties—was exquisitely prepared and, like most cruises, nonstop. I was giddy like a girl asked to the prom when a note addressed to Miss Coleman in Stateroom 310 included an invitation to dine that night at the table of Captain Andrey Domanin, “Master of the Orion”.

One night after dinner the captain took a joy ride past the actively-erupting Manam volcano; red lava flowed down the side and rocks and flames shot out of the top. (As I watched from the deck, a glass of champagne in my hand, I wondered: am I asleep?)

Performers boarded the Orion in our last island port and drummed a farewell before we sailed to the Great Barrier Reef. The last days at sea were rough, literally and figuratively. Barf bags were tucked behind the rail on every deck. The ship’s doctor Doctor Chris administered shots and big blue nausea pills; Dramamine was heaped in a tasteful bowl on the reception counter.

I was one of the few unaffected and had work to do—an article on Burning Man due for Trailer Life magazine. I found an empty bar on the top floor of the ship but my laptop kept sliding off the table what with all the pitching and yawing. (Cruise ship tip: when seas are high, climb down to the level nearest the hull, where it’s calmer.) The dining room was sparsely populated with wan-looking, uncommunicative passengers. The ill-conceived cocktail of the day was banana liqueur and coconut rum—a little warm ginger ale might have been a bigger seller.

(Sound like fun anyway? Get on board for this one: the TravelQuest South Pacific Cruise to totality on the Paul Gauguin with a pre-vacay on Easter Island.)

Above: The Orion

Below:

Commemorative rubber stamps; All aboard; Lounge and meeting room; Stateroom 310; Cairns; Snorkel gear; On deck; From the Zodiak; Manam volcano; What to wear?; Dancers on board; Still waiting for the Green Flash.

Find more photos here