On Monday, Aug. 21, a solar eclipse is set to dazzle viewers across the United States. The moon’s path will cross with the sun’s, casting a shadow on Earth.
All of the U.S. will be treated to at least a partial eclipse, but viewers in the aptly named “path of totality,” a 60- to 70-mile-wide strip of land cutting across the country, will experience a total eclipse, resulting in two minutes of darkness in the middle of the day. The eclipse will enter Oregon at 10:15 a.m. PT and exit South Carolina at 2:50 p.m. ET, touching on 14 states along the way.
This year’s eclipse will be the first one to cross the entire continental U.S. since 1918, and more than just astronomers and scientists have taken notice. Eclipse mania has ensued, spawning its own mini-industry of sorts. Hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and bars within the path of totality are set to cash in on eclipse tourism: The diagonal route puts prime viewing spots within driving distance for much of the country. Watch parties, akin to Super Bowl or election night events, are scheduled throughout the U.S.
Of course, eclipse glasses have become the must-have accessory for amateur astronomers, selling out in stores across the nation and online. Looking directly at the sun is ill advised, even during the eclipse. It’s safe only for those within the path of totality, and even then only for the few brief minutes when the sun is completely covered by the moon. For everyone else, viewing the partial solar eclipse will require glasses equipped with special-purpose solar filters.
Total solar eclipses are actually more common than the frenzy suggests, occurring about once a year. It just so happens that they mostly occur over open water or remote land. This year’s total eclipse is the first one viewable in the continental U.S. since 1918, though Hawaii saw one in 1991. The next total solar eclipse in the U.S. will be in 2024, and will travel from Texas to Maine.
For scientists, this eclipse may eclipse all other eclipses.
Alex Young, a solar scientist at NASA, said in a release the eclipse’s path across the country was a “game changer.”
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“Sports-viewing was essentially revolutionized by having cameras that could follow a player from start to finish,” Young told Yahoo News. “And that’s something like what scientists can do during this eclipse.”
“We can’t send a camera in real time to follow the eclipse shadow — it travels around 1,500 miles an hour — but we can instead line up lots of cameras and lots of sensors over and, in this case, lots of balloons. We then turn those many observations into one giant observation that lasts for roughly an hour and a half.”
That’s not to say it will be all work and no play for scientists. Hakeem Oluseyi, a NASA astrophysicist, said those viewing the eclipse will “experience a very personal astronomical event.”
“It is dynamic and multifaceted; it brings down to Earth the magic and majesty of the heavens.”