Get Ready for the Great Eclipse of 2017

On August 21, 2017, the moon will cast its shadow across most of North America, with a narrow path of totality tracing from Oregon to South Carolina. Tens of millions of people will have a chance to see something that the continental US hasn’t seen in ages — a total eclipse of the sun. Will you be ready?

The last time a total solar eclipse visited a significantly populated section of the US was in March of 1970. I remember it well as a four-year-old standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, all worked up about space already in those heady days of the Apollo program, gazing through smoked glass as the moon blotted out the sun for a few minutes. Just watching it was exhilarating, and being able to see it again and capitalize on a lifetime of geekiness to heighten the experience, and to be able to share it with my wife and kids, is exciting beyond words. But I’ve only got eight months to lay my plans!

Where and When

First, the basics. Totality will cross the Pacific coast at 17:15 UTC just north of Depoe Bay, Oregon. It will proceed across southern Idaho into Wyoming – Grand Teton and Yellowstone visitors will have quite a treat – then Nebraska, a tiny corner of Kansas, Missouri, small slivers of Illinois and Kentucky, across Tennessee and a fraction of North Carolina, finally heading out to sea between Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at 18:49 UTC. Need to see how close you are to totality and when you can expect the eclipse to start? NASA has put together a handy interactive Google Map for just that purpose.

The Eclipse of 2015. Source: NASA eclipse web site
The Eclipse of 2015. Source: NASA eclipse web site

Your first task is to decide where you’re going to watch events unfold. Assuming you want to witness totality, quite a few major cities are in or very near the path – Salem, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; Lincoln, Nebraska; Kansas City and St. Louis; and Nashville, Tennessee. Viewing opportunities will abound in and around these cities, so it won’t be much of a chore to step outside at the appointed hour. However, I’ve heard that the sight of the moon’s shadow racing across the land is especially exciting if you can get somewhere elevated. So on the 21st you’ll find me sitting on the top of Menan Butte outside of Rexburg, Idaho, watching the shadow approach across the plains to the west.

It’s worth noting that the path of totality east of the Mississippi is within a reasonable day’s drive of about half the population of the United States. If you need to travel to get to totality, you’ll need to think ahead, because you’re going to be competing with a lot of other eclipse watchers in addition to the usual summer travelers. Destination locations, like national parks and major resort areas, are likely to be booked. In fact, it may be too late already — I can’t find a hotel room in Idaho Falls for that weekend to save my life. Looks like we’ll be camping by the side of the road.

How to Observe

Eclipse glasses are a must. Source: Sky and Telescope
Eclipse glasses are a must. Source: Sky and Telescope

Once you decide where to be and make the appropriate sacrifices to the weather deity of your choice for clear skies, what are you going to do? Most people will be content with just watching, but no matter where you go there are likely to be a ton of people and a party atmosphere, so be prepared to be sociable.

For direct viewing before totality, you’ll want to think about eye safety. At more populated viewing sites, vendors will no doubt be doing a brisk business selling eclipse glasses at incredible markups, so you might want to order yours ahead, and maybe have a few extras to share with unprepared watchers. A shade 14 welding helmet filter will also do the trick, as will fully exposed and developed black and white photo film, as long as it’s a silver-based film. Pinhole cameras are a good choice too, but you’ll need at least a meter focal length to project a decent image. If you don’t feel like toting a refrigerator box around, projecting the image from a telescope or binoculars onto a screen is a good way to go too.

And don’t forget to bring a flashlight – it’ll be as dark as night for the few minutes that it takes for the moon’s shadow to pass.

Eclipses Aren’t Just for Watching

Hackers and space geeks might not be content to just watch, of course. Personally, I’ll be tending an array of cameras to capture the event, as I suspect many others will. Many ham radio operators will be trying to use daytime ionospheric skip to work long-distance contacts during the eclipse, and there are some coordinated efforts to conduct experiments during the eclipse. Others with a scientific bent and the right resources might choose to replicate Sir Arthur Eddington’s confirmation of Einstein’s General Relativity during a 1919 solar eclipse; the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo will be close enough to the sun to allow measurement of the gravitational lensing Einstein predicted. And you might even be able to get funding for public outreach efforts to enhance the viewing experience.

No matter how you choose to spend Eclipse Day 2017, enjoy it. If you do happen to miss it, don’t worry — the US gets treated to another total eclipse in 2024.

And if you happen to find yourself on Menan Butte outside of Rexburg, Idaho, come on over and say hi.

58 thoughts on “Get Ready for the Great Eclipse of 2017

    1. Cool! The HaD crew is mulling over hosting some “Eclipse Parties” along the path of totality. If there’s enough interest we’ll start something over on Hackaday.io to coordinate.

      1. Already have my flight to Charleston.

        Charlestonians: I’m thinking about viewing it on the Yorktown / around the ship museum you guys have down there. Good idea, bad idea, or do you have a better idea?

        If that doesn’t work out, I’ll meet you underneath the lighthouse of the Presque Isle state park in Erie, PA in 2024.

  1. “However, I’ve heard that the sight of the moon’s shadow racing across the land is especially exciting if you can get somewhere elevated.”

    Sounds like a good way to measure the speed of the moon.

  2. Drat, I’m headed to central Missouri. I don’t think there’s a high-point which will give an adequate vantage point for the movement of the shadow (hadn’t thought of that before Dan mentioned it). Ah well, I’ll experience this one on flat land and look for a trip to higher ground in 2024 (that stripe moves from the southwest to northeast).

  3. We used our cheap Celestron 6″ reflector to view the transits of Venus and Mercury by shooting them up onto the ceiling. We also follow sunspots that way to help figure out the HF propagation conditions. I will ask you to be careful when aiming for the sun, which turns out to be way more interesting than most celestial objects IMHO, as one time I believe I had the mirror focus a beam not on the 90deg prism but onto the threaded stem holding it which smoked off some of the oil Now I do a quick boresight with the dust cap on, remove the cap looking through the eyepiece connection to get a better sitht and then shoot that unfocused sun onto the ceiling, then do the final aiming and focus with the zoom eyepiece secured in place. How cool would it be to see the corona projected like that and be able to view any prominences in progress.
    Or cut some #12 welding glass for some 3D printed frames, save the squares you cut and make a few https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bris_sextant Bris sextants, probably need to attach it to a sighting tube and a bubble for land lubbers or in the air(with altimeter corrections to the worksheet).

  4. Where along the path of totality is the least percentage change of cloud during a typical August? I don’t mind about optimising duration, more about the eclipse not being obscured

    1. Probably somewhere in the mountain west.
      One blog says the Eastern side of the Oregon Cascades is the best place to view it. Being on the lee side of the mountains should minimize the chance of clouds. For other states you’re best bet is to look at a copy of the Old Farmers Almanac for 2017 to see where is likely to have a dry summer.

    2. The Snake River plain on Idaho where I’ll be viewing is supposed to have the statistically best chance of cloudless conditions. It’s essentially a desert – the western part is an extension of the Great Basin desert that forms most of Utah and Nevada. August should provide the best chance of good viewing.

      The wildcard here is – me. We moved to Idaho at the beginning of October, bringing with us a record-setting month of almost continuous rain. Now we’re in the middle of the snowiest winter in recent memory, and I take full responsibility. So I’m prepared to make rapid changes to our viewing plans on The Day if needed. We’re base-camping in Twin Falls, which is about 2.5 hours from Rexburg and to the southeast. If the weather looks iffy to the west we can make a snap decision to head back up toward Boise and find a spot in the path of totality up that way. I haven’t picked out my backup locations yet, though – I’m really hoping Rexburg works out.

      1. We’re in the process of getting word out that we are offering parking, camping, and RV sites near and in the crater of the South Menan Butte, providing access to the rim of the crater for viewing the eclipse. We believe we have a very unique experience to offer people by being able to see the coming and going of the eclipse from about 500 feet above the valley floor. We are also within 2 miles of the Center of Totality and will experience 2 minutes and 17.8 seconds of Totality of the possible 2 minutes and 18 seconds for our area. Don’t sleep in your car along the side of the road. Check out our website at http://www.idahosolareclipse.com and join us at the South Menan Butte for the eclipse.

    3. I had an interstitial ad from the Nebraska tourist board assure me that Nebraska was the absolute perfect place to view the eclipse from, I’ve given it 48 hours now, and no other ads have contradicted them, so I’d take it as gospel truth.

    4. North of me is Wyoming. Looks like a desert to me. That is where I plan to be. The town of Glendo, WY is pretty much dead center of the best viewing and is less than four hours away. The entire stretch of I-25 between Glendo and Casper looks darn near perfect (not more than 10 miles from dead center).

  5. Funny thing is, I’m planning to drive for 5 hours to go to a random crossroad if a place where the nearby town names sound like they came right from a horror movie just to be in the area of greatest duration. I may get my radio out since CQs will be plentiful, hopefully.

  6. Tip: if you want to film the eclipse, you can just use cheap aluminized mylar film to cover the lens and act as a solar filter. Use more layers to reduce more light. Try to avoid wrinkles to stop flaring.

    Aluminized mylar film is also called “emergency heat blankets” and available in the camping section of your local Wal-Mart, for about $3.

    Would not recommend making eyeglasses out of this, as I have no clue what wavelengths it actually blocks… replacing a digital camera is a lot cheaper than replacing eyeballs.

    I filmed a partial eclipse and a Venus transit with my setup though. http://www.instructables.com/id/3-Camera-usable-Solar-Filter/

    1. I was gonna say it, but then decided I couldn’t be assed getting crucified by safety nazis today, takes ages to darn the holes in my socks…

      But also, chip bags, old CDs…

  7. Note that the map above exposes a grand and odious lie, a mis-apprehension we have toiled and suffered under these many years…

    … Sweet Home is in Oregon, NOT Alabama.

    1. Yup I remember it, was very impressive, I just needed to stand out in my front yard to see it. It doesn’t get as dark as you’d think, just seems like an overcast day. In reality it’s probably 99% darker or something, but eyesight doesn’t have a linear response to illumination. Gets a little chilly too, but again, not really cold. Great to see the Sun get eaten though. Dunno how many of those I’ll see in my life, 1999 was the only one so far. I’ve seen a few Lunar ones, they’re great too.

      I didn’t bother with lenses or contraptions. Just looked directly at it for a moment, now and then. Apparently a welder’s mask is good to view a solar eclipse through. You won’t go blind briefly glimpsing, just don’t stare. But I’m pretty sure your eyes would hurt before you do any damage.

      1. You are right it was a bit overcast but me being still a child at the time it was a massive thing, I remember the newspapers were giving away the viewing glasses etc. I live in Scotland so I didn’t see the full effect I but I believe Cornwall did.
        You will never see another one in your life time unless you go abroad and see one but there are many partial eclipses to come but these are not as good as full.

        1. I’m not saying it was an overcast day! Just that, during a solar eclipse, that’s what it seems like! The sky gets darker, but it’s not like night and day. It just looks like some overcast weather, or perhaps that it’s getting toward late afternoon in winter or maybe autumn.

          The sky dims, the world dims, it gets a bit cooler. But it doesn’t actually do dark. Or cold. Just seems a bit overcast.

          The News reported on it live on some channels. So my analogue cable TV box told me. Cable was nice cos they threw a phone line in cheap, so I could use my modem to access the Internet less expensively! 60p per hour weekends, £1 per hour weekday evenings, and never, ever, ever during daytime! Maybe occasionally I’d wanna check up on 1 or 2 newsgroups during the day, just to see how an argument was going, so spending a few pence on connecting was something I could excuse myself.

          I was in the North of England as a young man, and I dunno if I got the 100% Cornwall did, but it was certainly enough. If it turns out I only saw 96%, it was still great. Sort of thing that made empires shiver, shook the faith in holy men. And really it’s just bits of rock barrelling aimlessly round space, occasionally one of them casts a shadow. But the Sun in daytime, up there in the sky, it’s the rule. It’s so much the rule you don’t even think it’s a rule. It seems impossible not to have the Sun in the sky. But then one day out of your life, it disappears! A great big round ball of darkness eats it!

          1. I like your write up about this, It must have been terrifying in the old days when people didn’t have a clue whjat was happening. I also find it mazing the moon is the exact size and distance to cover the full sun. I thought you meant overcast as in weather as it was a bit here in Scotland but not overly.It truely is a magical sight and I hope to go off somewhere one day and see it again as an adult because as a kid you don’t fully appreciate these types of events.

  8. My sister-in-law lives in Culvert City, KY, which is very nearly between the GD and GE points and less than 20 miles from the optimal path. I might pay them a visit this summer!

    1. In this brave new world we have created where Alex Jones is “mainstream news” I think that will be overshadowed by The new world order, devil worshipping fema camp enslaving satanic lizard overlord #pizzagate eclispe story which I am sure is in the works.

  9. Silver based B&W film is not reliable enough – too many variables. Ditto things like CDs, aluminized mylar blankets and other crap. A proper filter is somewhat cheaper that losing your eyesight.

    Get an astronomy magazine and peruse the ads for proper filters. They are not too expensive. Welder’s filters are good enough and may be available locally relatively cheap.

    You won’t need a flashlight – it doesn’t get that dark.

      1. Ah, it’s all about lunatics and stuff. Very little useful astronomical data. Besides, it’d technically be “Dark side of the Sun, because there is no Sun, because the Moon’s light side is blocking it from our view, which is actually dark right now, while, ironically, the Dark Side of the Moon is fully illuminated by the Sun, but we can’t see it, our own natural satellite, from here”.

        Besides that The Wall is better.

    1. That first link got truncated. The ellipsis–a.k.a. “three dots”–in the middle of the URL should be “observing-news”. I’ll try posting it again in hopes it won’t get clipped.
      http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/how-to-look-at-the-sun/
      This TinyUrl preview link will also get you there:
      http://preview.tinyurl.com/p6dstsl

      Not sure where we’re going to view the eclipse, but my wife has already agreed to humor me and let us take a short vacation for the event.

  10. Plans set 2+ yrs ago.
    Roadtrip! Will be attending totality with GF, (stage 4). 10 hr ride/drive one way. Ancient eclipse glasses on hand.
    Any interest in the night sky? Go to Heaven’s Above.

  11. My wife and I were saving up for and planning a trip to the US heading for somewhere like Grand Teton national park to catch this eclipse, its been a life’s ambition of mine.

    However, we just had some news that pretty much eclipses everything else, we’re expecting a baby in August!

    So, we’ll just have to wait until the next one in about 8-9 years time and do it with the micro-human in tow ha ha :)

    I do hope its fabulous and everyone has a great experience, cheers!

  12. I live on the west slope of the South Menan Butte, in Idaho. The upper Snake River Valley is at an altitude of about 4800 feet and the two Menan Buttes are about 500 feet higher than the valley floor. We are 20 miles north of Idaho Falls. The skies are crystal clear due it being a remote agricultural area. My great grandfather homesteaded the West side of the Buttes along the bank of the Snake River and I have lived there about 60 years. I have pasture ground at the base of the South Butte and am considering renting out campsites, RV parking or day parking. If there is enough interest I am considering sites that would include access to water and porta potties. The South Butte, and all access, is private property. From my property to the top of the Butte is a 20 to 30 minute hike. Our property is within 2 miles of the center of totality. Please email if you have questions.

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