Aug. 21 eclipse offers once-in-a-lifetime day of darkness

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This map shows the path of totality across South Carolina on Aug. 21, from about 2:30 to 2:49 p.m. MAP COURTESY NASA.GOV

Mother Nature has a special show planned for this summer, a rare and surreal spectacle in the mid-day sky. You will not want to miss the total solar eclipse as day is turned into night on the afternoon of Aug. 21.

South Carolina is perfectly positioned to experience both the partial and the total eclipse, as the 70-mile-wide path of totality passes through the middle of our state, from west to east. The path of totality will begin northwest of Greenville at around 2:30 p.m. and continue through Newberry, Columbia, Orangeburg, Moncks Corner and finally make its way across Charleston about 2:48 p.m.

The excitement surrounding this event stems from the fact that it has been 100 years since the last coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in the United States. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness, record and have a story to pass down through the generations.

It will be viewable to an estimated 12.2 million Americans who live within the path, plus millions more who make the trek to view it.

The path of totality will enter the United States in Oregon and bisect the country, crossing Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina before arriving in South Carolina. This cross-country moon shadow trek will take 94 minutes.

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the eclipse will end at sunset near Africa.

Exactly what will be happening?

There are two parts to this eclipse. In the partial eclipse phase, the new moon will gradually move in front of the sun and the daylight will diminish. The sun will resemble a bright crescent moon.

During totality, the moon will ultimately align with the sun and block out the sunlight, turning the mid-day sky to twilight, complete with stars and rapidly cooling temperatures. This cosmic spectacle promises to be an unforgettable experience.

When I told my 9-year-old grandson Sam about the eclipse, he said, "But I thought the sun was way bigger than the moon." And, of course he is right. So, how is this total eclipse even possible?

It is fairly simple, as these two remarkable coincidental facts explain: Our sun is about 400 times larger than our moon and our moon is about 400 times closer to earth than our sun. Thus, from our perspective, during a total solar eclipse, the sun and moon appear to be about the same size and the moon can "cover" the sun.

During the total eclipse phase, the moon's shadow will leave a thin ring of light around the periphery, called the solar corona or "ring of fire." This is the only time that it is safe to look directly at the eclipse without eye protection.

The duration of totality will be 1.5 to 2.5 minutes, depending on your location, and then it becomes a partial eclipse again as the shadow continues to cross. If you are not in the path of totality, the sun will never be completely covered by the moon for you, so you must always use eclipse glasses to view the eclipse.

Where to watch

According to NASA, the best sites for viewing are near a lake or on the beach. Recommended locations include Lake Santee as well as Lake Keowee and northern areas of Lake Hartwell. Along the coast, consider Sullivan's Island, Isle of Palms, Murrells Inlet or Pawley's Island for big sky view.

Many events are planned along the path of totality. The city of Charleston is planning "Go Dark Charleston." The DuPont Planetarium at USC Aiken, the South Carolina State Museum and Roper Mountain Science Center in Greenville all have events planned. An internet search will reveal more venues and events.

The weather - including potential cloud coverage - will play an important role, so having a secondary location for viewing is a good idea. Monitor the forecast closely.

For a good source of weather information specific to celestial events, visit www.eclipsophile.com.

Tips for viewing and photographing

It is never safe to look directly at the sun. Eye protection is critical to prevent serious permanent injury to your eyes.

  • Use eclipse glasses throughout partial eclipse phases. They are inexpensive and widely available online. Also, #14 welder's glasses are approved for eclipse viewing.
  • Use a solar filter. Visit this site for details: www.skyandtelescope .com/observing/solar-filter-safety/.
  • Make a shoebox pinhole camera as a project for the kids in advance of the event. For step-by-step instructions, visit www.livescience.com/33906-solar-eclipse-viewer.html.
  • Watch this webinar for tips on photographing the eclipse and you won't need an expensive camera. You can do it with your smartphone. Visit www.sky andtelescope.com, click on the "Observing" tab, scroll to Fred Espenak's Webinar on Basic Eclipse Photography. (www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/ basic-eclipse-photography-webinar)
  • Make your plans now. Pick your spot, be sure you have eye protection and then relax and enjoy.

Afterwards, send your photos to us at www.blufftonsun.com for possible publication in a subsequent issue.

Glenda Harris of Bluffton is a freelance writer and editor, nature lover and aspiring novelist.

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