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



How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Telescope

Solar scope GrantI do love my Celestron scope. The NexStar 8SE wasn’t too hard to assemble. It really makes a statement as a decor focal point in the dining room. And it would pull in most of the go-to night sky objects, up close and personal—from the cool lunar craters, to Cassini’s Division in Saturn’s rings and the Great Red Spot, even the M13 cluster—if I could figure out how operate the damn thing for maximum enjoyment.

Likely due to the price tag (it was gifted to me by a very generous father-in-law), that level of telescope assumes a basic operator knowledge that I frankly don’t/ever will have. I never passed through the kiddie-stages of owning smaller, less complex scopes. I haven’t yet read Astronomy For Dummies. I can’t point to Polaris. As dense as it is, the paper documentation that comes with the 8SE still reads a little like the Monty Python “How To Do It” sketch. How to play the flute? “Well, you blow there and you move your fingers up and down here.” How to use an 8-inch altazimuth Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a SkyAlign’d clock drive, Barlow lens, assorted Plossl eyepieces, filters, power tank, and energy rejection/H-alpha solar filter system? “Well, you point it there, and you push this button here, and then you start looking at the Solar System.”

Well, there are few more steps. My husband, neighbor, and I all flailed around on multiple occasions, late at night, trying to properly align to the stars and planets. The only ones we’re sure of are Saturn and the moon. There’s more to see, I think.

There are one billion—no wait, TWO billion resources on the internet to teach me how to operate my telescope. But who has time to wade through all of that, most of it over my head anyway? I set out to find a tutor, and a wonderful one I did find.

Meet Grant Tandy, Astronomical Interpreter at the Oregon Observatory at Sunriver. He agreed to help me set up my scope for solar viewing (a function I’ll need to master within two years, before TSE2017) and teach me to find and appreciate nighttime objects as well.

Quick and dirty glossary of eclipse jargon

Alt-Azimuth – “Altitude and Azimuth”. This is about spherical coordinates in degrees and something to do with your telescope. EGGHEADS, ANGRILY COMMENT NOW. (Seriously, please use the comment section to weigh in and correct or explain anything that I’ve gotten wrong or am just making a flip joke about. Thanks. I’d love to hear from you.)

AnnularAnnular eclipse—A type of partial eclipse where the disk of the moon is JUUUST a little too small to blot out the sun, causing a way cool “ring of fire” effect. Not safe for direct viewing without protective eyewear. Also referred to as a hybrid eclipse.

Aphelion—The point in Earth’s orbit when we’re furthest from the sun. Eclipses that occur near aphelion are total because the size of the sun in the sky is smaller, and the same size as the moon is near perigee.

Apogee—The further possible point the moon can orbit around the earth. The closer to apogee, the shorter the eclipse.

Baily’s beads—Ready to have your mind blown? Baily’s beads are the dots of light in a ring you see with the naked eye immediately before totality caused by SUNLIGHT SHINING THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS ON THE MOON.

Centerline—The position running through the middle of the path of totality where the eclipse is at maximum duration. Most chasers fight to be closest to the centerline; others interested in specific observations of the chromosphere, shadow bands and other associated phenomenon might set themselves up closer to the edge of the path.

Chaser— AKA umbraphile; one who uses valuable vacation time and travel dollars to stand in the shadow of a total solar eclipse, usually on multiple occasions. (Why aren’t we called lunatics?) A bizarre niche market for the travel industry. (I recommend hooking up with TravelQuest for this purpose.)

Chromosphere—The layer of the sun’s atmosphere just above the photosphere, visible as a red rim around the black disk during a total solar eclipse.

Contact—Points at which the disk of the moon touches the edges of the solar disk. A total solar eclipse can be described by four contact points: First, when the moon touches the edge of the sun. Second, totality, when the disk of the moon makes it all the way across the sun initiating the Diamond Ring. Third, the “outtro” Diamond Ring, ending totality. And fourth, when the tiniest final sliver of moon no longer bites into the disk of the sun.

Cookie biteCookie bite—Description of the solar disk during the early partial phases. (Not to be confused with “orange peel”, the image of the sliver of sun close to totality when viewed through an orange solar filter.)

Corona—Meaning “crown”, the wispy plasma that appears as a white glow with long streamers reaching away from the surface of the sun. The solar corona can be seen with the naked eye only during a total eclipse. The coronal shape is unique to each eclipse, and varies due to sunspot activity.

Diamond ringDiamond Ring—The phenomenon visible at Second and Third Contact when the last point of light from the sun is blocked by the moon, creating an enormous, shiny diamond ring in the sky, just like you see in cartoons. Looks exactly as it sounds.

Duration—Though eclipses can drag on for two or so hours after First Contact (the beginning) to Fourth Contact (the end), duration usually refers to totality, the period between Second and Third Contact. The shortest duration can be seconds; the longest possible is slightly more than seven and a half minutes.

Eclipse—In general, when any heavenly body is visibly darkened when it falls into the shadow of another heavenly body. Eclipses can be annular, partial, total and lunar (an eclipse of the moon occurs when the shadow of the earth falls on the moon).

Eclipse glasses—Solar filters fashioned into lenses and set into (usually) inexpensive cardboard frames or sometimes more substantial eyewear. Often made of Mylar. Make sure they’re labeled as “CE” compliant, or choose welder’s goggles fitted with a #14 lens for safe, long term exposure and a fetching, sexy look.

Edge effects —A ground phenomenon that occurs when the sun is more than halfway obscured, causing tall shadows to appear crisp on one edge and indistinct on the other. I’ve never seen this.

Edging—Observing at the edge of the path of totality to prolong Diamond Ring viewing (but sacrificing duration).

First Contact—The official beginning of the eclipse—the first partial phase—when the moon begins to obscure the sun.

Fourth Contact—The official end of the eclipse; the final moment of the last partial phase when the moon ceases to block any part of the sun.

Horizon effect—AKA twilight glow. The 360° sunrise (or sunset, if you’re an Enneagram 4) occurring during totality as the moon’s shadow commingles with the atmosphere at the horizon.

Hydrogen alpha filter or “H-Alpha”—a solar filter for your telescope that allows safe viewing of the sun (and sunspots) during the partial phases due to something about nanometers.

Partial  solar eclipse—A relatively common occurrence, when the sun is partly obscured by the moon to any percent that isn’t 100% total. Was once fun to observe until you saw your first total. Now like kissing your sister.types of eclipses

Path—The track of the lunar shadow as it passes across earth during an eclipse; usually meaning the path of totality, in the umbra, where the total eclipse can be observed. “The path” varies in width up to only 100 to 150 miles wide at its widest point. The closer one stands to the center of the path, the longer the eclipse will last.

Penumbra—The outer part of the lunar shadow when the sun is only partially blocked. Those standing in the penumbra see a partial eclipse.

Perigee—The closest distance between Earth and a body in orbit around us. The disk of the moon appears largest in the sky—and a total eclipse is possible—when the moon is at perigee.

Perihelion—When the orbit distance between the sun and Earth is as close as possible. Eclipses during perihelion are shorter in duration.

Photosphere—The layer of the sun’s atmosphere just below the chromosphere that causes “sunlight”. It’s very hot.

Pin hole projection—A fun way to ground-observe the partial phases of a solar eclipse. Poke a small hole into a piece of paper and angle it so that it casts a tiny shadow on the ground in the image of the “cookie bite”.

Prominence—The bright red flames that erupt from the edge of the sun’s photosphere into the corona, visible during totality. Solar magnetic fields may form a “prominence loop”.

Saros cycle —The ancient, still-used repeating cycle to calculate the occurrence of eclipses. Specifically? Every 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours per cycle. A 56-year “exeligmos cycle” is comprised of three saros cycles (with four eclipses in the same saros). Related: the metonic cycle, a period of 19 years, 6,932.4 days, during which it’s possible for a series of up to five eclipses to occur on the same date 19 years apart. And so forth. I was told there would be no math.

Totality ArubaSecond Contact—The moment the moon fully obscures the sun, creating totality.

Shadow bands—A weird, not-always-observed (and not-fully-explained) ground phenomenon during the last moments before totality and directly after caused by “shimmers” in the atmosphere. Some describe shadow bands as similar to the undulating patterns on the bottom of a swimming pool. Best seen on a flat, light colored surface, like a concrete patio or wide area of beach.

Sunspots—Dark blemishes on the sun where the photosphere is cooler. Observable through a telescope with a solar filter. Tracking sun spot activity can help predict of the quality and shape of the corona and prominences.

Streamers—The long white projections of the corona typically at the sun’s equator…but length, placement, and shape of the corona will be a glorious surprise (see sunspots, above).

Telescope—You know what this is. A telescope is not necessary to enjoy a total eclipse. But it’s fun if there’s a good one nearby (owned by an seasoned operator) that you can peek through.

Third Contact—Sadly, the moment when totality ends and the sun reemerges from behind the moon.

Total eclipse—When the sun is completely covered by the moon…or is it?  Here’s a question I’ve never found an answer to. Is “total eclipse” synonymous with totality, or does the term refer to the entire event from First to Fourth Contact, with the payoff of totality in the middle?

Totality—The period of time—up to 7 minutes, 32 seconds—when the sun is completely blocked by the moon.

Transit—An underwhelming phenomenon to observe during the off years when there’s no total eclipse on the calendar. Just kidding. Sort of. A celestial body is “in transit” when it passes in front of the sun and can be observed as a tiny speck from Earth as it crosses. Catch the Transit of Mercury in May of 2016—but it’s a long wait until the next Transit of Venus in 2117. (My profile picture was taken during the TofV in 2012.)

Umbra—The darkest part of any shadow where the light source is completely obscured. A small light, like a flashlight, forms only an umbra; a giant source (like the sun) forms both a penumbra and an umbra. Only in the umbra during a solar eclipse can you experience the astonishing awe of totality.

Umbraphile—One who loves eclipses. (You too? I’d love to hear from you—drop me a line in the comments. Clear skies!)

The stages of a total solar eclipse

There are technically six phases, but First, Second, Third and Fourth Contact are the important ones to know. Second Contact is the money shot—and the final seconds before it are exhilarating.

First Contact

When the edge of the moon touches the sun.* Hooray! The eclipse has officially begun, and you’ll notice zero difference from the moment before. Keep your eclipse glasses or other protective eyewear on while looking at the sun. Go get a beer; you have about an hour to tinker with your telescope and chat up the other chasers before the real action begins.

Partial Phase One

The moon moves slowly to pass in front of the sun and the sky remains bright until the final ten or so minutes before totality. Clouds may form and disappear, causing widespread panic below. In the final few minutes before totality, daylight will eerily gray; watch for shadow bands on the ground and notice the drop in temperature, often up to twenty degrees. Confused night birds and insects may emerge. You may feel a vague, uncontrollable dread—you’re experiencing your home planet in a way you’ve never felt before. It’s not like twilight. Your beloved sun is growing faint, losing strength. (Reflect upon the way ancient man must have reacted.) Keep your eye filter in place until the last seconds, then whip it off just in time to see Baily’s Beads and everyone’s favorite phenomenon, the self-explanatory Diamond Ring.

Espenak no creditSecond Contact

This is it! TOTALITY. Our moon is now blocking our sun, and you’re standing in the umbra. Wispy white coronal streamers materialize and flow from the blackest, black hole in the sky. Red prominences (yes, you can actually see FLAMES ON THE SUN) are visible at the edge of the black disk. It’s okay, scream and clap; try not to be the “woo guy”. No shame if you cry—at least one person near you will be openly sobbing. Some say it’s like looking into the eye of God. Wrench your eyes away for a few moments to observe the colorful 360° twilight on the horizon and the constellations that are always up there during the day but you never get to see. Don’t forget to kiss your sweetie (it’s good luck). Take pictures if you must, but don’t try too hard unless you’re a pro. Photos never capture the full phenomenon or represent what you felt.

Third Contact

Did you miss the Diamond Ring on the way in? No worries—you’ll get a good long look during Third Contact when the moon hits the sun’s other edge before it’s time to re-don your filter glasses. The sky brightens quickly. Earth returns to normal, but you do not.

Partial Phase Two

For most, the eclipse is now OVER; folding chairs collapse and chasers beat feet to whatever conveyance brought them to the centerline. Nerds like me—the same sort of people who watch the final movie credits until the union logo—continue to drink and observe all the way to Fourth Contact.

Fourth Contact

The last tiny sliver of moon passes…passes…wait, no…okay, yes, passes finally away and bids adieu to the sun until next time. Smattering of applause.

*Note to the truly clueless: You know the moon is not actually touching the sun, right? Only the disks of the Sun and Moon as they appear in the sky are touching. Just wanted to make that clear.

Photo credit Fred Espenak

Total eclipses: the basics

Eraserhead memeIf you think you’ve seen a total solar eclipse, but aren’t sure—you haven’t.

A total solar eclipse of the Sun occurs on Earth when, during a New Moon phase, the orbit of the Moon sends it into direct alignment between the Sun and the Earth, completely blotting the disk of the Sun and casting a shadow that falls onto Earth. Those standing in that shadow witness an eclipse.

Not every New Moon produces a solar eclipse; the tilt of the Moon must be oriented exactly so with respect to Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

The width of the shadow—the path of totality—will be about 100 to 180 miles wide, and will vary based on how close the Moon happens to be from the Earth. The closer an observer stands to the center of that path, the longer the eclipse will be. The maximum length of totality is a little over seven minutes; usually they are much, much shorter. (As my husband noted after the four-minute eclipse in Egypt: “That cost a thousand dollars a minute.”)

A total solar eclipse occurs somewhere on Terra (fun fact! that’s the real name of our planet. And our moon is Luna, and the sun is Sol—no relation to the Hebrew baby name) every 18 months or so. Not all are reasonable to travel to see; many last only a few seconds and occur over a remote body of water or an inaccessible wilderness.

As far as we know, Earth (okay, I’m over it, back to the common name) is the only planet where a total solar eclipse occurs; it’s made possible because our Sun and Moon appear nearly the same size in the sky as seen from Earth. Why? The Sun’s diameter is approximately 400 times larger than the moon’s—but the Sun is also 400 times farther away.

(Think about it: Earth has one sun, one moon, and it’s possible we’re the only planet with sentient beings on it who can appreciate an eclipse. Coincidence? I think not—and that’s the subject for different blog entirely.)

Civilizations of yore had colorful, regionalized explanations for what caused an eclipse. The Chinese believed that a celestial dragon devoured the sun; Viking cultures blamed wolves. In Vietnam they believed it was a giant frog. Incan natives thought a puma god was responsible. Ancient man! So stupid.

JUST KIDDING. Superstitions continue today, though. No joke: Many 21st century citizens still consider eclipses to be an evil omen. A popular misconception in some cultures is that they’re dangerous to children and pregnant women, who hide indoors to shield themselves from totality. In India, some people fast, believing that food cooked during an eclipse will be tainted.

In a couple of countries I’ve traveled to, small children were concealed during the days surrounding the eclipse; a rumor circulated that white North American women were there to kidnap babies to take home—that was the insidious purpose of our oversized backpacks.

Some superstitions are pleasant and positive. Leave it to the Italians to plant flowers during an eclipse; everyone knows that they’ll grow to be the most colorful in the garden.


RC filterRhonda Coleman

Not even an amateur astronomer, yet gifted with a fancy Celestron NexStarSE8 with the H-Alpha solar filter and full eyepiece package that I currently use to look at Saturn. Then I go back indoors where it’s warm.

I love the spectacle on the ground when humans look up, together, to observe phenomena—eclipses, comets, aurora. A lucky chaser, I’ve experienced clear skies for totality during all six attempts. BOOYAH:


  1. Mexico—July 11, 1991
  2. Bolivia—Nov. 3, 1994
  3. Aruba—Feb. 26, 1998
  4. Madagascar—June 21, 2001
  5. Egypt—Mar. 29, 2006
  6. Papua New Guinea—Nov. 13, 2012

Next TSE, right around the corner (and right in my own backyard): Oregon, August 21, 2017