SOLAR ECLIPSE AUGUST 2017

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On Monday there will be a total solar eclipse. That in itself isn’t rare, because they happen quite frequently. What makes this one special is that the path of totality will sweep across the whole of the continental United States, from coast to coast, so a huge number of people will potentially be able to witness one of Nature’s most incredible spectacles – the brilliant Sun temporarily blocked-out by the Moon. On either side of the path of totality people will be able to see a partial solar eclipse – exactly how much of the Sun they see covered by the Moon will depend on how near the track of totality they are; the closer they are to it, the more of the Sun they will see covered by the Moon.

Of course, the US has been going eclipse-crazy for a good year now, if not for several years. It’s been impossible to book a hotel room in the path of totality for a long, long time, and the wisest people have been planning and organising their travel plans with military precision, and are already at their observing sites so they don’t get caught up in traffic or get delayed at the last minute. States along the eclipse track have been setting up special campsites to cope with the numbers of people expected to travel to watch the eclipse, and huge volumes of traffic are expected over this coming weekend as people head to their observing sites with just a few hours to go. By Monday morning the whole country will be in a fever of anticipation, and will quite possibly grind to a halt as the eclipse gets underway.

After it has finished… well, imagine the traffic jams, the impatience, the chaos…!

Although many people I know are going I’m not; I couldn’t justify spending that much money without an absolute 100% guarantee that I’d see the eclipse, and that’s impossible to guarantee because the weather will definitely ruin the big day for some people. On Monday, sadly, millions of Americans will get a sense of what it’s like to be an amateur astronomer. They’ll know what it’s like to look forward to a rare, special, spectacular event for literally years, only to stare up at unbroken clouds on the day and miss it. They will feel the crushing disappointment we feel every time we miss a meteor shower; they will know the rage that grips us when we are robbed of the sight of a naked eye comet in the sky because the sky is cloudy for a week; they will feel as powerless and hopeless as we do when we read giddy and breathless observing reports on Twitter and Facebook about a huge display of the northern lights going on above the clouds as rain angrily lashes our windows…

So I wish good luck to everyone who is hoping to watch the eclipse. 🙂

Of course, as is the way now with every astronomy story in the news, a lot of people are using the eclipse to spread pseudo-scientific bullshit and downright lies. Step up please the UK “newspaper” The Daily Express which was once one of the proudest, most respected publications being read… but how times change. It has, for some time now, taken a gleeful delight in printing stories they must know to be made up. They print, almost daily, utterly pathetically, ridiculous stories about UFOs, alien portals, chemtrails and the “Apollo Hoax”. And this eclipse has sent their clickbait king Jon Austin into overdrive…

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Yes, this eclipse has got all the crazies coming out into the light like woodlice scuttling out from beneath an overturned rock. Some are predicting that a fleet of alien spacecraft that has been hiding “up there” for years, monitoring us, will be revealed when the Sun goes dark. Others are predicting the usual cataclysms, earthquakes, tidal waves, plagues etc, the same ones they’ve predicted will accompany every eclipse/comet/meteor shower for the past twenty years. It’s just boring now. And, with wearying predictability, others are totally convinced that the “hidden tenth planet” Nibiru – oh you know the one I mean, a mysterious planet the idiots and lunatics insist is a)  larger than Earth and b) has somehow been missed by every single telescope, space-based observatory and interplanetary probe ever made and c) is on a collision course with Earth – will come into view at last…

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OK, let’s be straight here. Nibiru is bullshit. The whole thing, the very idea of it is absolute, total, utter bullshit. It’s an armageddonporn fantasy that people with absolutely no knowledge of science or grasp on reality persist in believing in. It’s right up there with fairies living at the bottom of the garden and unicorns trotting through enchanted forests with their spiral horns shining in the light of a Full Moon. Anyone who believes in it is a gibbering idiot. If YOU believe in it, you’re an idiot. Admittedly it’s not the most stupid conspiracy theory, but as far as I’m concerned only the “Flat Earth” CT is ahead of it, with “Apollo Was a Hoax” coming in behind it in third place.

But come Monday a lot of the tin foil hat brigade are going to be posting photos triumphantly “showing” Nibiru, because they’ll have seen it there, in the sky, when the Sun went out…!

Sadly, without even knowing it they will have seen and maybe even photographed a planet in the sky during totality – but not Nibiru. When the Sun is blocked out, several other worlds will come into view…

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And what about here in the UK? Will we see anything of this wonderful event?

Well… hmmm, maybe… perhaps… possibly… ish…

There’s a very small – and by “very small” I mean “vanishingly small” – chance that we might be able to see a small nick out of the Sun on Monday evening before it sets, something like this…

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…but I wouldn’t place any money on it. If my sky is clear here in Kendal (pause for laughter, I know!) I’ll be giving it a go, obviously, but only because I’d kick myself if I didn’t at least try.

Should YOU give it a go too? Well, that depends on how badly you want to see it, and if you have the right equipment or not. The nick out of the Sun will be so small I’m pretty sure neither pinhole projectors or eclipse viewing glasses will show it, so you’ll need to be either looking at the Sun directly through a telescope with a solar filter fitted to it, or projecting an image of the Sun through a telescope or pair of binoculars into a screen of some kind. That will be hard enough if you haven’t done it before, and the Sun will be lose to setting too, adding to the difficulty. But yeah, give it a go, why not..?

So, let’s take the hype out of this eclipse with a few bullet points…

* You can watch the eclipse in total safety as long as you use the right equipment, the right techniques, and common sense. I’ve read reports that some schools are banning their pupils from watching it. How stupid. A very, very rare event that should be enjoyed by everyone, and celebrated, and they want to rob their pupils of the chance to see it? A few minutes’ research on Google would be enough to give those teachers good, sensible advice and guidance.

* The safest ways to watch the eclipse (not counting “on TV”, because why would you watch it on TV when it’s going on right outside your door??)’ will be to watch it through special “Eclipse viewing glasses”, or to look at an image of the Sun projected through a telescope by someone else.

* Your summer sunglasses will NOT be dark enough to view the eclipse through. Neither will a piece of smoked glass, or a dark biscuit wrapper (don’t laugh, some people have tried).

* If you have eclipse viewing glasses, be sure to keep them on throughout all the partial phases of the eclipse – only remove them once the Moon is totally covering the Sun.

* If you DON’T have eclipse viewing glasses, you can view the eclipse using a “pinhole projector”. Just prick a hole in a piece of card, then place another card behind it, and line them up with the Sun. A teeny tiny image of the Sun will be projected through the hole onto the second card, letting you watch the eclipse safely. Don’t look THROUGH the holes…

* If making a pinhole projector is beyond your DIY skills you probably already have something in your kitchen that will work the same way – a colander will project multiple Sun images through all its tiny holes.

* If you don’t have a colander, find a tree and stand beneath it during the eclipse. The tiny gaps between the leaves will act as pinhole projectors and throw images of the eclipsed Sun onto the ground at your feet.

* During totality you will NOT see any mythical planets, UFOs, angels, or “second Suns”. You WILL see the sky go dark, stars and several real planets pop out into view, and the Sun’s beautiful glowing corona. Birds will sing, fooled into thinking the Sun is setting. You might see mysterious bands of shadow – known, unsurprisingly, as “shadow bands” – rippling across the ground. Seriously, that’s more than enough – you don’t need to look out for made up rubbish.

* After the eclipse… well, good luck. It’s going to be insane, I’m sure, as people dash to get back home again. Just be safe.

As the Big Day draws closer the amount of BS being spoken about it will rise dramatically,  ignoring the fact that the eclipse is a perfectly natural phenomenon – rare, and spectacular, but natural. It will excite and inspire millions of people across the US and across the world. It will make people cheer, clap and cry. It will give astronomers valuable data about the Sun itself. It will fill magazines and websites with beautiful images, images to be treasured forever.

But it will NOT do the following: it will not trigger earthquakes, tidal waves or plagues. It will not open up a gateway to Hell. It will not summon demons or angels, nor will it herald the Second Coming. No alien fleets will appear in the sky, and stupid ***** Nibiru most certainly will not be revealed.

That’s not to say it won’t be the cause of chaos. As eclipse-watchers struggle desperately to get into position car parks will overflow to bursting, tempers will fray and fists will swing. When it’s all over and millions of people try to turn around and go home at the same time… well, I’m thinking that’s not going to be pretty…

I’m looking forward to seeing the photos people take. This will surely be the most photographed eclipse in history, and I’m sure there will be many fantastic images taken of the eclipsed Sun shining above iconic US landmarks, landscapes and buildings. Sadly, there will be a lot of fakes floating about on Monday night too; it’s now quite common for people to trawl the internet for great astronomy photos of eclipses, the northern lights and meteor showers etc and then claim they took them. This will definitely happen again come Monday, which is a shame but it seems to be the way of the world, sadly. And I can absolutely 1000% guarantee that this fake “solar eclipse seen from the International Space Station” (bad) Photoshop hackjob will be all over Twitter and Facebook like a rash on Monday night, just as it is after every total eclipse now. I wonder who will be the first to post it this time..?

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So, with just a couple of days left to go until the eclipse, I wish everyone over there in the US – especially all my friends who have travelled out there, and those who already live there and have decided to go chasing the Moon’s shadow rather than stay at home – the very best of luck come Monday. I hope you have a clear sky wherever you observe the eclipse from, and I’m looking forward to hearing all about your adventures. Many of you will enjoy it, but chances are some of you will miss it because of poor weather. And others will tell you that it’s “okay”, that that’s “just how things work sometimes” and try to reassure you by telling you “You’ve still had a great experience!” and “there’s always another time!” but that won’t help. You’ll be gutted, absolutely gutted, and will stand there swearing at the sky, shaking a fist at it in fury, hating it for letting you down just when you needed it to help you. And nothing anyone says will make you feel any better. And you know what? It’s fine to feel that way, it really is. Life isn’t all sleepy, yawning kittens; sometimes it really ****s you off by ruining something you were really looking forward to – especially if you’re an amateur astronomer. We accept it as part of our hobby, but the anger and disappointment you feel in your gut when you miss something going on “up there” are very real and very personal. So if you’re clouded out on Monday go ahead, shout at the sky, be mad at it. You’ll have earned that right.

But if you DO see the eclipse, I really hope you enjoy it. Take lots of photos but please, PLEASE, even though the duration of totality is short, and it will be gone before you know it, take a few moments to just step away from your cameras and telescopes and LOOK AT IT, take it all in – the black hole of the eclipsed Sun, the feathery corona around it, the colours of the sky, the stars and planets you can see in the sky surrounding the eclipsed Sun, the looks on the faces around you… If you don’t do that you could very well get home and realise you watched the eclipse on the tiny screen on the back of your camera and never actually saw it at all.

Finally for this post a quick Q&A Sheet featuring eclipse info…

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Good luck everyone, and clear skies!

 

 

 

 

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