Astronomy

Great American Eclipse Casts an Ethereal Eye From Coast to Coast

A science writer reflects on the wonders of the August 21 eclipse and looks ahead to her next skygazing opportunity.

A few months ago when I began reporting about the August 21 eclipse, Rick Fienberg, an astronomer with the American Astronomical Society, said something that gave me my first hint this event would be different than any other science story I had covered.

“To go through life without seeing a total eclipse of the sun would be kind of like going through life without ever falling in love,” Fienberg said.

Having now witnessed a total solar eclipse, I understand the sentiment, but what I found most surprising is how, like love, the experience sears into your consciousness.

The buildup was slow. Around 1:00pm Eastern Daylight Time on Monday four eclipse buddies and I relocated into the backyard of my friends’ cabin near the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, about two hours north of Atlanta. The skies were unusually clear, more typical of California than the Carolinas in August. Temperatures hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

We donned our eclipse glasses and looked up to find what appeared to be a small orange full moon with a dark and growing spot on its northern flank. It was the sun, of course, as viewed through our protective eyewear, with the moon just beginning to block a tiny bit of its light.

RELATED: All Eyes on the Sun's Mysteriously Superhot Corona During Great American Eclipse

Over the next 90 minutes, we watched the celestial tango unfold. The moon slowly spread itself over the face of the sun. The surrounding rim of sunlight reddened and grew slender.

Temperatures dropped. Hummingbirds and Carolina chickadees swarmed to bird feeders for an evening meal. A golden light beamed down through the forest. Oddly, though only a sliver of sunlight remained in the sky, it still was not dark.

And then, in a flash the sun winked out. I was momentarily confused because I couldn’t see anything, but then remembered to take off my eclipse glasses. Hanging in the sky was an eye I had never seen before. The pupil was pitch black; the white, translucent and shining. A word welled up: ethereal. We saw stars, Mars, and Jupiter. It was 2:34 in the afternoon.

Two minutes and 28.8 seconds later, a brilliant diamond of light glinted off the celestial orb. We put our glasses back on and watched as the moon and sun began to part ways.

A short time later my sister, watching the eclipse from about 160 miles away, texted: “The corona is like a backup singer who finally got her turn at the lead. She was amazing.”

Next up: July 2, 2019

Total solar eclipses happen about every 18 months, when the moon flies between the sun and Earth. Most of the time the moon’s shadow falls on the ocean or uninhabited lands. The Aug. 21 eclipse was the first to touch the continental United States in almost 40 years and the first to pass coast-to-coast across the country since 1918.

More than 12 million Americans live in the 70-mile-wide, 2,500-mile-long “zone of totality” that stretched from Oregon to South Carolina, with tens of millions more people residing within a one to two-hour drive away.

NASA turned 11 spacecraft to view the eclipse, launched more than 50 high-altitude balloons, and dispatched at least three aircraft for science studies. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station caught sight of the moon’s dark shadow on Earth from a vantage point 250 miles above the planet.

Thousands of citizen scientists spent part of their precious eclipse time snapping pictures for a movie of the corona in hopes of learning more about why the sun’s outer atmosphere is millions of degrees hotter than its bright yellow surface. Other citizen scientists used their smart phones to study radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere, the charged outer layer of Earth’s atmosphere, and to collect information about how plants and animal behaved during the eclipse.

RELATED: Giant Star, Massive Black Hole Give Einstein’s Relativity Theory an Extreme Test

As for me, I’m thinking about July 2, 2019, the date of the next total solar eclipse. This one will make landfall over Chile and Argentina, carving a path of totality 125 miles wide. It’d be a long way to travel, but peak duration will last 4.5 minutes — nearly double the amount of time we had during yesterday’s event.

The United States won’t have to wait another four decades for its next day in the eclipsed sun. On April 8, 2024, the moon’s shadow will travel from Mexico to Canada, cutting through several major US cities along the way including Dallas, Little Rock, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, and Burlington before passing over New Hampshire and Maine.

I understand now why some people chase eclipses all over the world: The awe they evoke and the connection to the cosmos they instill, not to mention the science that can be accomplished. During an eclipse in 1868, scientists discovered helium. In 1919 Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity was put to the test with an experiment that proved the gravity of the sun bent the light of background stars. The stars that appeared to be near the sun were visible only during the darkened skies of a total solar eclipse. But perhaps the greatest gift of an eclipse is its reminder of our humanity.

“Today, without realizing it,” tweeted Trip Harriss, a SpaceX manager in Florida, “we set our differences aside, and together we looked to the sky in wonder.”

WATCH: How Explosions on the Sun Affect Space Weather