This year’s total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people. But since this eclipse will only happen on a fairly narrow 70-mile-wide strip of a portion of the globe, many of those interested in watching it will have to travel there, sometimes from quite a distance. Planning, logistics, and appropriate tools and supplies are vital. Where will you go to see the eclipse? How will you track its progress? How can you safely look at the sun? Where can you find the tools you need? Below are seven steps to making the most of your eclipse viewing this summer. And our friends at ThinkGeek offer many of the supplies you’ll need.
Safety note: It is never safe to look directly at the sun. Only during the brief period of totality is it safe to look in the sun’s direction, as it is completely covered by the moon. The rest of the time, use your solar eclipse glasses or specially designed solar telescope.
1. Plan your location and decide where to stay. If you’re lucky enough to live on or near the path of totality, you’re golden. Just go outside and look, or take a short drive and bring a picnic lunch. Problem solved. The rest of us, however, have some decisions to make. What’s the best place to view the eclipse? Some people I know are traveling across the country to visit friends or family for the eclipse. Some are planning an epic camping trip. Still others are just calling it a family road trip and staying in a hotel near the path. Think about what situation works well for you, and then study some maps. My favorite eclipse planning site is the Great American Eclipse site. They have detailed maps with plenty of information, such as where the path of the eclipse falls, how long the eclipse will last in each location, and how many people are expected in each state. NASA, of course, also has a very informative site. Use these (or your own favorite eclipse information site) to plan your day.
2. Teach your kids about how eclipses work. To make the most of the experience, be sure to teach your kids how every kind of eclipse works. Depending on your kids’ ages, you can pull out some sports balls (soccer, baseball, basketball, etc.) and, with volunteers, recreate a portion of the solar system. This is best done at night with a high powered flashlight. For older kids, review with them what they have already learned, comparing partial, annular, and total solar eclipses, along with lunar eclipses. I highly recommend the episode of Crash Course Astronomy dealing with eclipses (see above), featuring GeekDad-approved scientist, Phil Plait. (Read my uber-long GeekDad interview with him here.)
3. Learn about solar eclipse safety. Looking directly at the sun with the naked eye is never safe. Only during the totality of the eclipse can you look in that direction. The rest of the time, you can enjoy the eclipse via your eclipse tools. (You can learn more about how to safely view a solar eclipse at Celestron’s eclipse site.) Which takes us to…
4. Assemble your eclipse tools! Plan with those you’ll be meeting, if anyone, so you don’t have to duplicate efforts. But make sure there are enough eclipse glasses to go around, especially for children (be sure to monitor your very young kids extra closely).
Eclipse glasses. These are usually cardboard glasses akin to the old 3-D movie glasses, except with a film in the eye portion that filters out 100% of ultraviolet and infrared rays, along with blocking ridiculous amounts of visible light. Look at the partially eclipsed sun through them, however, and you’ll see just the right amount of light allowing you to see the moon blocking out the sun. These can be found in a wide variety of locations, but ThinkGeek is also currently selling a 5-pack for $9.99. Totally worth it. Fancier eclipse glasses exist, but this type works effectively and are affordable.
Anything with pinholes in it. A fun way to see the waxing and waning eclipse is to shine the sun’s light through anything with a pinhole in it, and then examine the eclipsed point of light on a flat surface. When the eclipse is partial, the shadows will reflect that. Poke holes in paper, look through a colander, or see what else you can find around the house that has small holes. If you’re short on pinholes, you can look through the filtered light of trees, or even make a grid with your fingers and look at the light that way.
A solar telescope. Ideally, you’ll have access to a fancy solar telescope, however most of them are expensive and quite unwieldy. And even if you have one, you’re not likely to lug it up to the eclipse’s path of totality. Smaller, more portable (and affordable) solar telescopes exist, such as a new one sold by ThinkGeek. It’s an effective and reasonably priced backpack eclipse telescope, made by Celestron. With the telescope, tripod, and accessories all fitting in a small backpack, you can use it to get a better look at the eclipse, no matter if you see it in your own backyard, at your Aunt Mildrid’s, or while camping in the middle of nowhere. At only $99.99, it’s a justifiable purchase for the eclipse, plus it can be used to study the sun before and after the eclipse, to see sunspots, the sun’s corona, and solar flares. Read my full review.
5. Make a survival kit. You’ll likely be sitting outside, waiting for the eclipse to reach its peak, enjoying the totality, and then watching it wane for a while. This will all require sunscreen and possibly shelter, chairs, food, and lots and lots of water. Put yourself together a kit of all of these things, along with some first aid, just in case, and some outdoor activities for your kids.
6. Make it memorable. Take photos of your family enjoying themselves, and maybe join with other family members or friends to really make it an event. See if you can take photos through the solar telescope. Create an eclipse-themed party around the day, including a round eclipse cake, round eclipse snacks and food, and even a melon ball fruit salad.
7. Plan for the next eclipse! There will be another total solar eclipse crossing the United States on April 8, 2024. I don’t know about you, but I’m already making plans. It’s the perfect opportunity to visit a good friend in Ohio.
Use this upcoming eclipse to ignite a newfound passion for learning about our nearest star. There is a lot to study, even when there are no solar events occurring. It’s also a fantastic activity for colder months when the idea of lugging your conventional, non-solar telescope out in the dark, freezing cold of night isn’t as appealing as it is during the summer.
Where do you plan to watch the eclipse? Are you lucky enough to live in its path of totality? Share your plans with us. We might just be nearby.