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Solar Eclipse 2017, Great Cosmic Connection

August 31, 2017

It seems safe to say that nothing brings a nation together like a total solar eclipse. For the many months leading up to August 21, 2017, people across the United States geared up for what was for many a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse. For the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse would cross the entire Continental US, giving Americans the rare chance to unite under a cosmic event.

We are lucky planetary voyagers on Earth, residents on, as far as we know, the only planet in our Solar System that, due to perfect geometry in the Sun-Earth-Moon, experiences a total eclipse of the Sun, enabling the Sun’s atmosphere — the solar corona — to glow outward from the disk of the Moon.

Like many others around the country, this was my first total solar eclipse, viewed from Sylva, North Carolina, a small mountainous town in Western NC, just within the 70-mile-wide swath of totality crossing from Oregon to South Carolina. Two multimedia staff facilitated our live-streaming of the event from the Southwestern Community College campus, enabling us to bring the experience of totality back to our Daily Planet Theater in Raleigh. (Raleigh experienced ~93% totality.)

Museum livestream set-up on the Southwestern Community College campus (Photo: Matt Zeher)

Museum livestream set-up on the Southwestern Community College campus (Photo: Matt Zeher)

The excitement leading up to the eclipse, the enormous generation of public interest and engagement made possible by social media and online news sites, was likely more than for any other celestial event, and a rare moment when astronomy and the cosmos can connect millions of eager people. Even as a scientist, I too marveled at the Moon’s on-schedule — to the second! — arrival at the edge of the Sun, precisely the time and place predicted by meticulous calculations of  astronomers throughout history.

Our team came equipped with multiple cameras and AV equipment, and a Hydrogen-Alpha solar telescope, through which all but the wavelengths for hydrogen are filtered, rendering the Sun a gleaming orange ball. With a good eye (and some magnification), solar prominences can be seen looking like “fuzz” along the edges of the Sun.

The Sun seen through our H-alpha solar telescope prior to the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Solar prominences can be seen at ~11:00. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the eye piece. (Photo: R. Smith)

The Sun, seen through our H-alpha solar telescope prior to the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Solar prominences can be seen at ~11:00 in the image above. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the eyepiece. (Photo: R. Smith)

As the Moon changed from a thin to an ever-larger black crescent creeping across the Sun’s surface, approaching inevitable totality, excitement was palpable in the gathered crowd.

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Beginning of the eclipse at ~1:06 pm ET, as seen through a white-light filter. Sunspots are faintly visible along the midline of the Sun, and some clouds are seen darkening the solar surface. The photo was taken with a Sony alpha-6000 against the telescope eyepiece. (Photo: R. Smith)

In spite of the beautiful views of the encroaching eclipse through telescopes, approaching totality was evident in other, equally spectacular observations. Unusual crescents on the pavement and other surfaces, projected through the leaves of trees (nature’s pinhole cameras) appeared all around us. Some forward-thinking folks brought their own pinholes by way of colanders, cardboard boxes, or other contraptions, expanding the number of miniature eclipses — windows to our solar system — that surrounded our feet.

The partial eclipse projected onto the street through spaces in the leaves. (Photo: R. Smith)

The partial eclipse projected onto the street through spaces in the leaves. (Photo: R. Smith)

One of the most memorable observations was the dimming of the light to an eerie level, not quite like the light during twilight or dawn, but strange and unearthly. As the sky dimmed, the temperature started dropping (as much as 10 degrees or more!), and the shadows remained strangely sharp, unlike what one experiences with clouds or coming dusk. Crickets started chirping, and anecdotes of odd animal behavior were later reported by numerous observers across the country; a nearby friend reported that her little mules took naps during maximum eclipse, and local deer stood quietly in nearby fields. I wondered, what were my animals doing at 93% totality?

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I wonder, what did Giovanni, one of my little donkeys waiting back at home, think during the solar eclipse?

Strange dimming of the sky and surroundings just before totality in Sylva, NC. (Photo: R. Smith)

Strange dimming of the sky and surroundings just before totality in Sylva, NC. (Photo: R. Smith)

During those final seconds before totality, all looked skyward with eclipse glasses on, waiting for the view to grow dark, that long awaited moment when we could remove our safety measures and peek with our unaided eyes at the Sun itself. Clouds seemed to hover nearby but didn’t encroach on the view from where we stood, giving way to arguably the most spectacular natural phenomenon I have ever personally witnessed. The sky was a dark blue/black and the Sun hovered like a jewel, its atmosphere — the solar corona — streaming magnificently outward. It was like peeking beyond our own protected planet to something cosmic and awesome, a connection to the universe beyond.

No regrets remain for taking a few seconds from looking up to snap this view of the total eclipse, taken with a Sony alpha-6000. (Photo: R. Smith)

No regrets remain for taking a few seconds from looking up to snap this view of the total eclipse, taken with a Sony alpha-6000. (Photo: R. Smith)

Equally striking was the sense of planetary connectedness that extended beyond just the personal viewing of an amazing cosmic event. The sharing of images and experiences across the nation just after the eclipse, and continuing to now more than a week past the event, seemed particularly unusual in its single shared viewpoint: the total solar eclipse was spectacular, and even those who experienced the partial eclipse could feel part of a larger community of onlookers. There were no discernible alternate sides to the singular sentiment that this was a phenomenon not to be forgotten.

View of the total solar eclipse from Sylva, NC. The solar corona shines outward from the eclipsed disk of the Sun, and the pink of solar prominences from the Sun's chromosphere are visible (Photo: Matt Zeher)

View of the total solar eclipse from Sylva, NC. The solar corona shines outward from the eclipsed disk of the Sun, and the pink of solar prominences from the Sun’s chromosphere are visible (Photo: Matt Zeher)

Like no other natural phenomenon I can recall, this total solar eclipse connected us to our star, our solar system, our environment, our communities, and (this time) to a uniquely American experience. At ~ 2 minutes in length, we are further reminded of the dynamic nature of the planets, how they are not static orbs hanging fixed in space but rather move in specified orbits about the Sun, with moons that in turn orbit their home planets. We are rarely able to witness this directly, simply by looking up, but rather do so by more indirect connections to the cosmos, such as day-to-night regularity, seasons, and the occasional meteor or comet passing by.

During the total eclipse, we see the entirety of the Moon and Sun passing each other, cosmic travelers themselves. As the eclipse passes, dropping a seemingly alien veil on our planet for a moment, we are reminded that the comfortable habitability of Earth is the lucky result of being in the perfect spot in space, and it is fleeting.

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The Museum’s live stream of the total solar eclipse can be seen anytime by visiting our livestream link.

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