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The Power Behind a Total Solar Eclipse

This Monday, April 8, millions of people across the U.S. will get a chance (weather permitting) to observe a total solar eclipse — and millions more will head outside after the lunch hour to get a glimpse of a partial solar eclipse. Who's excited?!

While the eclipse “buzz” is in full swing in the media and amongst neighbors and friends, for the Planetary Studies Foundation, this ain’t our first rodeo. Our members have long known the power behind this rare, astronomical event and the ways seeing one can truly change your life.

This will be my third total solar eclipse. The first one being in 1998 in Aruba (a PSF cruise!), the second one was near Omaha, Nebraska in 2017 with my parents (Paul & Diane Sipiera), my sisters, and husband. And now, I have my fingers and toes crossed that the weather cooperates that we get to experience another one together with my recently added children, niece & nephew in tow.

PSF Members & cruise ship guests watching the 1998 eclipse from Aruba

One of my favorite questions I get from the unexperienced is, “what’s the big deal?”

Well, it’s hard to put into words. I could tell you what physically happens, but my description can’t do it justice. As one science writer put it, “beholding the power of a total solar eclipse is so much more than something you see with your eyes. It’s something you experience with your whole body.”

I recently read an interview with science writer, David Baron, and couldn't agree with him more. Here are some of the most exciting excerpts from his NPR 'Life Kit' interview:

🌑 On what it feels like in those few minutes when the moon is completely blocking the sun

As soon as the moon blocks the last rays of the sun, you're plunged into this weird twilight in the middle of the day. You look up and the blue sky has been torn away. On any given day, the sky acts as a screen that keeps us from seeing what's in space. And suddenly that's gone.

💡 On the dimming light of the sun

It's as if you're in a room and someone is very slowly dimming the lights. For most of that time your eyes are adjusting and you don't notice it. But then there's a point when the light gets so dim that your eyes can't adjust, and weird things happen. Your eyes are less able to see color and it's as if the landscape is losing its color.

👤 On strange shadows

As the sun goes from this big orb in the sky to something much smaller, shadows grow sharper. As you're nearing the total eclipse, if you have the sun behind you and you look at your shadow on the ground, you might see individual hairs on your head.

🌘 Why partial eclipses can’t compare

You will see a sun you've never seen before. That bright surface is gone. What you're actually looking at is the sun's outer atmosphere, the solar corona. It's the most dazzling sight in the heavens. It's this beautiful textured thing. It looks sort of like a wreath or a crown made out of tinsel or strands of silk. It shimmers in space. The shape is constantly changing. And you will only see that if you're in the path of the total eclipse.

I wish you all safe travels if you’re heading to the path of totality. If you’re not, I sincerely hope you try and find the time to head outside starting at 12:34 p.m. CDT (1-2-3-4… that’s fun, right?) with the partial eclipse peaking around 2:00 p.m. CDT if you’re near Chicago. Be sure to look up the exact times for your location and please, PLEASE wear certified eclipse glasses to do so (and hold others around you accountable to do the same). I have seen them at Walgreens, Wal-mart, even a gas station near Dubuque, IA. I have a few extras if you're in the city of Chicago and want to pick some up before Sunday! Be sure that any eclipse glasses you purchase have legitimate solar-viewing approving lenses because looking at the Sun (especially a partial solar eclipse!) without glasses is extremely dangerous and permanent eye damage can happen quickly.

If you don’t have eclipse glasses, there are still fun ways to view what’s happening above by holding up something with a small hole in it. A piece of paper with a hole punched through it, a colander, a badge or keycard with a circle, you get the idea… hold it at waist height and when you look at the light coming through it on the ground, you will start to see a “bite” getting bigger and bigger as the moon passes in front of the Sun. This is incredibly fun and much safer for children, too!

Here's to hoping for clear skies! Happy viewing!

Eclipse Viewed Through a Colander


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