Planning for the Solar Eclipse

by Bill Tracy

As a backyard astronomer, here’s my take on why Virginians might want to “get out of Dodge” on August 21. Just like Dodge City, Kan., Virginia will be close to, but not inside the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse. Therefore Virginia will experience a partial solar eclipse. Virginia’s partial eclipse will range from about 80% in NoVA, up to about 95% coverage in Bristol. But even a 95% eclipse is not rare, nor is it a very exciting experience for astronomy hobbyists.

Only a Total Solar Eclipse qualifies as a once-in-a-lifetime event for Bacon’s Rebellion reader’s bucket lists.

Why is a total solar eclipse something that must be seen to be believed? To answer that question, we must delve into the fundamental differences between human eyesight and a camera. For many distant objects, in and beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a time-exposed photograph, for example by the Hubble Space Telescope, provides the most spectacular color and detail. In such cases, the camera/telescope combo wins as the best way to observe a deep-sky object.

Human eyesight, however, is far superior to a camera for certain “close by” events in our own solar system. This includes comets, and the greatest spectacle of all, the Total Eclipse of the Sun.

The superiority of the human eye is perhaps best described from my own observing experience. The human eye is better able to see gradations of contrast in nebulous objects such as comets. For example, when the famous comet Hale-Bopp passed our way in 1997, I spent quite a bit of time sketching drawings of the swirls and details that could only be seen by the naked eye through a telescope. By comparison, photographs taken at the same time revealed a cloudy, over-exposed image almost totally devoid of the detail visible to the eye.

Therefore, the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” definitely does not apply for a Total Solar Eclipse. I am expecting to see marvelous details in the Sun’s corona dancing around the circular dark mask of the Moon, not mention other sensory phenomena such as the confused behavior of wildlife, the diamond ring effect, Baily’s beads, and perhaps even flying shadows.

Keep in mind, two important observing tools that augment what the human eye can see are binoculars and telescopes. I personally plan to lug my 6-inch Dobsonian/Reflector telescope out to the Saint Louis metro area, where we have family. On the day of the eclipse we will head for totality around Carbondale, Ill., or alternately modify our plan if necessary due to weather and traffic considerations.

Eye safety is a very important topic. During the partial eclipse, it is imperative to use eye protection at all tines. Eye protection most commonly consists of properly certified solar filter film which can be used for eclipse glasses and for sun screens used to cover the front optics of binoculars, cameras and telescopes. My understanding is that a particular safety concern applies to locations like Bristol. As much as a 95% partial eclipse still requires eye protection, even if you mistakenly think you can look directly at the Sun’s thin crescent. Extended observing of the Sun’s thin crescent without eye protection can damage your eyes (eclipse blindness). Therefore Virginia’s partial solar eclipse necessitates eye protection for all, at all times.

Only during the approximately 2-minute duration of eclipse totality is it allowable to view the eclipse directly with your naked eyes. In fact, viewing with your naked eyes is the only way to properly observe the 100% total eclipse. Reportedly, out of fear, a few folks always leave their eye protection on for the total eclipse…but that is a mistake. The brief 2-minute period of totality is when I will use my telescope and binoculars intermittently to augment what my own eyes can see, and I will try to get some photos.

Regarding travel to the zone of totality, even Bristol residents would have to travel about an hour south on I81 to get to a good viewing location in Tennessee or North Carolina. Other Virginians like myself in NoVA will have longer treks. Traffic will most likely be challenging on the day of the eclipse. Therefore be prepared for emergencies, and be safe.

It’s time to go and get ready for our bucket-list adventure. And so. as amateur astronomers always say: Clear Skies!

For more information see the website GreatAmericanEcipse.com.

Bill Tracy, a retired engineer, lives in Northern Virginia.

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5 responses to “Planning for the Solar Eclipse

  1. Here’s a pretty good tracker for location.. there are others….

    http://xjubier.free.fr/en/site_pages/solar_eclipses/TSE_2017_GoogleMapFull.html

    what happens if the weather turns crappy? oh bite my tongue!

  2. I still had a Navy pass to get on to the base at Oceana NAS to watch the total eclipse that crossed that corner of Virginia in 1970. Watched it from the beach, where the club was serving massive numbers of a drink mixed for the occasion, aptly named “The Totality.” And, watched two poor fools get an ambulance ride after looking at the sun without eye protection (other than alcohol content). Thanks for the safety reminder.

    Viewing that total eclipse was a fantastic experience, and I hope anyone who can arrange to do so makes the trek to South Carolina to see it, along its afternoon path from Clemson through Columbia to Georgetown.

    • Bryson City, Acbar!

    • Thanks Acbar yes partial-eclipse eye safety is an issue…I wonder if that is going to be a big problem nation-wide? I would think the media needs to step up warnings as we get closer to Aug 21. Most folks know the rules, but some do not. Last weekend I thought I heard someone recommending a certain type of regular sunglasses, but no way. Also apparently some of off-brand solar filters have listed fake certification requirements, so some astronomy sources are now publishing the known certified brands to use.

  3. I just got an email from Amazon.com saying that some of the solar filters I bought may or may not meet ISO certification. They are providing refunds. I had purchased quite a few different solar filters for cameras, binoculars, telescopes, and eclipse glasses.

    I did not buy any cheap knock-off stuff, and it looks like the filters I bought are acceptable. But since Amazon could not immediately verify they are giving me a refund.

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