On August 21st, 2017 the shadow of the moon will race across a huge swatch of the U.S. Some people don’t know it is a solar eclipse. And for a small, seventy-mile wide line, people will see the sun completely disappear for a few minutes. A solar eclipse is when the sun is blocked by the moon and a lunar eclipse is when the shadow of the Earth is cast on the moon. So why so much interest?
There is a fantastic cosmic coincidence that the moon and the sun are the same size in the sky but it works to our advantage. But here’s the thing, if all the orbits were aligned perfectly, we would have eclipses every month. Instead, a total solar eclipse for your location is very rare. In fact, no one you know has likely ever experienced one. But being rare isn’t the only astounding thing. The entire lower 48 United States will experience a partial eclipse and that is a very cool astronomical event. But for people in the path of totality, the experience isn’t just scientific or photographic - it is bizarre, overwhelming, beautiful, and unforgettable.
Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse has this to say about seeing a partial eclipse versus a total eclipse: “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him."
But maybe you can’t get away from Houston. You can still expect to see a partial solar eclipse from about 11:50 AM until 2:30 PM. The moon will seem to gobble up the sun. You will see a crescent sun rather than a crescent moon. People can head to either location of the Houston Museum of Natural Science where local astronomy clubs will have equipment setup to safely view the eclipse.
Remember, looking at the sun with a telescope or binoculars without the correct filter will cause eye damage and likely blindness. There is no shortage of options though. You can get eclipse glasses with ISO-approved mylar film or you can go low tech and poke a hole in a box and project the image of the eclipse onto the inside shaded surface. In fact, projecting an image of the eclipse means you can share the view with a lot of people all at once.
But if you are in the path of totality, experienced observers all say the same thing: just watch. Don’t try to do photography. Don’t try to set up a fancy observing rig. Be prepared to be awed and silent and just experience the unmatched otherness of night erupting into an otherwise bright and sunny day. Totality is less than 3 minutes. This is a time for you to just experience something otherworldly right here on Earth. Here are 25 tips to best enjoy this experience.
No matter where you are, take some time on Monday August 21st and try to view the eclipse. You will be sharing in a huge cultural event and will learn some cool stuff about the solar system. And if you miss this eclipse, there will a total solar eclipse visible in Texas in 2024!
Jimmy Newland is a member of the Houston Astronomical Society and an astronomy teacher at Bellaire High School, Houston ISD.
Photo by Christian Puta from Unsplash