On Monday, August 21, millions of newly minted umbraphiles, or eclipse chasers, will gather to watch a total eclipse of the sun. Some of them will have picked out their viewing spots years ago, in hopes of getting clear skies. This celestial phenomenon hasn’t been visible across North America since 1918 and won’t be observable again from coast to coast until 2024. Within the 70-mile-wide “path of totality,” stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, viewers will see the sun disappear, surrounded by a dancing halo of light. In certain locations, the darkness will last for roughly two and a half minutes. Towns within the path of totality are bracing for what could be the largest human migration ever for a natural event.
During a solar eclipse, the moon passes directly between the sun and Earth, casting its shadow on Earth. From certain points on our planet, it will look as if the moon has entirely blocked out the sun. This brief alignment of three celestial bodies is called a syzygy (a great word for Scrabble players).
Skywatchers outside the path of totality will be able to see a partial solar eclipse; in Connecticut, the moon’s shadow will obscure almost 70% of the sun by 2:45 p.m. If you can’t get to the orbit path and would like to see the extraordinary beauty of the solar corona during totality, turn to NASA’s live-stream of the eclipse from multiple sites, starting at 1 p.m. at https://www.nasa.gov/eclipselive.
It is extremely important to use proper protective eyewear while watching the eclipse to avoid serious, permanent eye damage. The American Astronomical Society details which kinds of solar viewers meet international safety standards, and where to purchase them, at https://eclipse.aas.org/resources/solar-filters. If you have any doubts about the quality of your viewing devices, you might want to attend a public eclipse-viewing party where safe viewing materials are on hand. In Norwalk, the Stepping Stones Museum for Children is hosting one, and science museums, planetariums and public libraries across the country are holding similar events.
If there’s a budding umbraphile in your family, The Moon Book, by Gail Gibbons, is a cornucopia of lunar lore. Gibbons has created more than 50 acclaimed nonfiction books for children, and this one describes the phases of the moon and phenomena like eclipses with great clarity and well-researched illustrations. To see more of the moon than a dramatic shadow blotting out the sun, select Moon on the toolbar of the new Google Earth app. The geobrowser offers beautiful photographs and vintage TV footage of the six missions of the Apollo Program between 1962 and 1972, down to the footprints the astronauts left behind. Click on the pins on the moon map for tours of each landing site, narrated by the astronauts who explored them.
Lastly, if you happen to be in a place with clear skies and low light pollution, stay up late one night and look for shooting stars with your child. The Perseid meteor shower—giant chunks of space debris spun off Comet Swift-Tuttle—will be passing through the skies until August 26. These fireballs are visible with the naked eye once you’ve adjusted to the darkness, which takes about 30 minutes. After all, the simplest way to spur a child’s interest in astronomy and space is simply to look up.
To infinity and beyond!