The total eclipse of the sun, coming to a sky near you on Aug. 21, is said to be the most spectacular astronomical event one can experience.
The last time a total eclipse was visible from coast to coast across the United States was 99 years ago. This time, the sweep of the moon’s shadow will cross through Paducah and Bowling Green, Kentucky and Nashville, Tenn., within a half-day’s drive of Cincinnati.
About 91 percent of the sun will be covered in Cincinnati skies, and locals who stay put will miss out on the big show, as the sky goes dark and a ring of fire frames the moon.
But, what will be visible — crescent-shaped projections on the ground and the queer passage of the moon blotting out most of Sol — promises to be amazing.
Cincinnati Observatory Astronomer Dean Regas says the moon will make its appearance known around 1 p.m. when it starts to cover over the sun.
“We call that first contact,” Regas says. “Then the moon will slide in front of the sun, covering more and more of it until about 2:29 or 2:30. That will be the maximum eclipse right around then. For the next hour, hour and a half, the moon will slide on its way and leave the sun’s disk around 3:52 to 3:53.”
Presuming Cincinnati is fortunate enough to have clear skies — the show will be a bust if it doesn’t — the change in the dapples of light on the ground are the first things most people will notice.
Normally, these are circular projections, streaming through breaks in the leaves. During the eclipse, these take on the shape of the fingernail moon.
“The light coming through the trees will make little crescents on the ground,” Regas says. “The leaves will act like little pinhole cameras. It will let the light come through and you’ll actually see the eclipse on the ground. It’s very cool.”
Local and national interest in the eclipse has been growing steadily for the past year. Regas and his colleague, Cincinnati Observatory Outreach Educator Samantha Pepper, have recently been giving public presentations on the eclipse about every other day.
More than 200 people, adults and children, crowded into the basement lecture room of the Pleasant Ridge Library on Aug. 8 to hear Pepper explain how to safely view the eclipse and how exactly it works.
Several dozen of the people in attendance raised their hands when Pepper asked how many were travelling to see the total eclipse. Journeying to the eclipse presents a number of challenges. Hotel rooms along the path of totality — the technical name for the narrow path of the moon’s umbra shadow that runs from Oregon to South Carolina — are running north of $500 a night. Most are already sold out.
And making it to that path doesn’t mean you’re going to get to see it. As in Cincinnati, if there’s cloud cover, the show’s over. You have to be willing chase the clear skies as far west or east as needed.
Regas says he is prepared to do just that. And if it takes driving all night or a last-minute airline ticket, he says he’ll make it happen. It’s just that amazing.
“There are cool astronomical sights and then there’s this,” Regas says. “This is off-the-charts awesome to experience. I’ve only seen one in my lifetime and that was in Greece and it just blows your mind. The effects of the light around you and you can see the stars in the daytime. You look up and the sun’s gone.
“It’s one of these guaranteed awesome events. I think people are starting to get the fever for it. A total solar eclipse is, trust me, pretty much the most amazing thing you’ll ever see.”
Regas describes the sky turning dark-blue velvet and stars being as apparent as they are a half an hour after sunset. It’s real Book of Revelation stuff, and you can understand why it brought the ancients to their knees.
“You look up where the sun is and it’s just gone,” Regas says. “There’s a perfect black hole where the sun used to be. There’s this halo around the moon called the corona that’s part of the sun, but it looks like it’s around the moon. The temperature drops. The winds change. The birds and the animals get confused and the humans go crazy.”
Pepper says the most important thing to keep in mind is not going blind. Even when the sun is 90 percent blocked, it’s still very bright and can do permanent damage to your eyes within moments.
She says the only time you can stare directly at the sun is while the sun’s face is completely occluded by the moon and all that is visible is the sun’s corona.
To see the partially eclipsed sun safely, you can use special eclipse glasses, number 14 welders glasses or you can make a pinhole projector and let the sunlight come through the pinhole onto the ground. But you can’t safely use sunglasses, look through CDs, mylar balloons or any other makeshift lenses as people have actually and unfortunately done.
Pepper says that when they started the presentations in early June only a handful of people said they were leaving town to witness the path of totality.
“Now, it’s like, we’re all going!,” she says. “More and more people are getting excited about it and wanting to go.”
Pepper will be stationed at the Cincinnati Observatory on Aug. 21. If it’s a sunny day, she says, there could be 1,000 people in attendance.
“We’re going to have two food trucks set up. We’re going to bring in some extra porta-potties, but, as long as you have a safe way to view the sun, you can see it equally well from anywhere,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have to be at an observatory. You can just walk outside on your lunch break and watch through your eclipse glasses.”
The CINCINNATI OBSERVATORY will host a solar eclipse viewing event noon-4 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21. More info: cincinnatiobservatory.org.