How to prepare for the Great American Solar Eclipse

The biggest astronomical event of the year – the August 21 solar eclipse that will be at least partially visible throughout all of the continental United States – is now less than two months away, and experts are saying that there is no time like the present to make preparations.

According to the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the moon will at least partially cover the sun for two to three hours on that Monday, while anyone living along a narrow stretch from Oregon to South Carolina will be able to experience nearly three minutes of a total eclipse.

Other parts of the country will be less lucky: in Pennsylvania, the moon will block out up to 81 percent of the sun, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, while in some parts of the southern US (including parts of Texas and California), just 60 percent of the sun will be obscured.

Considering that it will be, as USA Today pointed out, “the first total eclipse visible only in the United States since the country was founded in 1776,” enthusiasts are looking for ways to make the most of the experience – and that includes ordering special gear in order to see the event and making plans to travel to observatories or other locations to get a better look at the action.

“This is not a geeky science event. This is a human event,” Theo Wellington, a volunteer who works as a Solar System Ambassador for NASA, told the newspaper. “You do not need to be an astronomer to enjoy an eclipse. This is one of the greatest natural wonders, enjoy the view.”

Make your plans now – before it’s too late – experts warn

Once you decide that you want to experience the event, the question becomes, where is the best place from which to do so? Clearly, the 70-mile-wide path of totality along the central US would be the ideal place, but as the Post-Gazette pointed out, that could be easier said than done.

The point of greatest eclipse is in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a city of 32,000 people which is said to be expecting as many as 100,000 visitors from all across the globe – including the director of the Vatican Observatory, Brother Guy Consolmagno. While cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina will be hosting events, finding a place to stay while you’re there may be tricky, as the Post-Gazette warns that many hotels have been booked solid for months.

Doug Warner, spokesman for the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the paper that occupancy rates are running between 75 and 85 percent at most local hotels for the weekend of the eclipse, while multiple locations in Hopkinsville are said to be offering camping space for visitors that are willing to “rough it” in order to see astronomical history.

Both the AAS and  NASA websites devoted to the eclipse offer lists of events and activities both prior to and the weekend of the event. Among the official NASA viewing locations for the actual solar eclipse are the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and the East Kentucky Science Center and Varia Planetarium.

Of course, if you’re going to go to the effort to travel to see the eclipse, you should be sure to take the proper safety precautions: order certified eclipse glasses, solar binoculars or some other kind of protective gear to keep your eyes safe – regular sunglasses are not sufficient protection, the Post-Gazette emphasizes. And skip trying to take photographs – just enjoy the event, Rocky Alvey, the director of Vanderbilt University Dyer Observatory, told USA Today.


Image credit: Aaron Favila / Associated Press