Predicting a solar eclipse won’t win anyone the keys to any kingdoms, as it did in Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” but it will give people time to be prepared.
Scientists and astronomers have been making preparations for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse for years, but average folks still have time to observe an event which hasn’t happened since June 8, 1918. On that date, a total solar eclipse swept across the United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts.
Solar eclipses are either total or annular (a ring of light is visible). The last total solar eclipse was in March 2016, but it was not visible in North America. People in Hawaii had a front-row seat for the total eclipse of 1991, with the last total eclipse visible in the continental US occurring in 1979.
In Pasadena on Aug. 21, a partial solar eclipse begins at 9:05 a.m., peaks at 10:21 a.m. and ends at 11:45 a.m. The next total solar eclipse visible from North America will be in 2024.
In Pasadena and all of California, most people won’t be able to see the eclipse in its totality. But, of course, with Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Caltech located in Pasadena, there are a few locals planning on making their way to better viewing spots around the country.
Kevin Hussey, manager of the Visualization Technology Application and Development group at JPL-NASA, started planning an official JPL-NASA event in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in October, beginning with a phone call to the Museum of Idaho (MOI). According to MOI Executive Director Karen Baker, the museum had already been planning an exhibit, “Space: A Journey to Our Future.”
After Hussey’s call, things snowballed to include a four-day weekend speaker series (including Dr. James Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division; Dr. Randii R. Wesson, lead study architect for JPL’s Innovation Foundry’s A-team; Carl Emmart, director of astrovisualization at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; and Hussey). Space-related movies — “Apollo 13” on Friday, “The Martian” on Saturday and “Contact” on Sunday — will also be screened in Idaho Falls’ Colonial Theater, built in 1919.
A number of Idaho Falls’ businesses will be closed that day or opening in the afternoon when the eclipse is over. Hotel rates have skyrocketed, leaving no vacancies. Besides out-of-towners, there are lots of locals interested in space and astronomy. Baker noted the Idaho National Lab (INL), which made the power generators for Voyager and Cassini, is based in Idaho Falls.
According to the INL website, INL is the fifth-largest employer in Idaho with about 3,900 employees (and 350 interns) in a city of about 60,000. Baker felt the community is really pulling together to make this event at MOI a great day for science, and for introducing people to Idaho, saying, “We bring the world to Idaho and Idaho to the world.” They are anticipating as many as 500,000 people for the event.
While Idaho Falls is a public and official JPL event (in collaboration with MOI), some former and current JPL employees are also heading to Idaho. Dr. Tom Spilker, who worked at JPL for 21 years as a principal space flight mission architect, and his wife, Dr. Linda Spilker, a Cassini mission project scientist, will both be traveling to Boise for a gathering of 20-odd family and friends. They’ve been planning the trip for a year and a half. According to Spilker, this is his second eclipse viewing and Linda’s third eclipse-chasing vacation. Linda “struck out twice” due to cloud cover.
On Feb. 26, 1979, Tom literally chased an eclipse with friends in Helena, Montana. He was living in Houston at the time and not married to Linda. With two other fellows, he woke up early on the morning of the eclipse and the weather was completely overcast, “except for a little hole, south or southwest.” They drove and got underneath that hole but “five minutes before, all the clouds we could see had dissipated” for a beautiful view.
To contend with clouds, NASA has its own backup plans — planes will fly above the cloud level. Tom recalled seeing the contrails in Montana. One might wonder why NASA would spend all that time and money flying for an event that lasts less than two minutes. (Totality in Idaho Falls is one minute and 41 seconds). That question and more are explained by a new PBS documentary, “Eclipse Over America,” airing at 9 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21.
The PBS series “NOVA” will be capturing the eclipse from an area 40 miles east of Irwin, Idaho, for a live Facebook event and then broadcasting the “Eclipse Over America” documentary that evening. The documentary explains the difference between total and annular eclipses and illustrates why total eclipses are important to astronomical research. Footage from that day’s eclipse will be included.
Besides Idaho Falls, the major cities under the path of the total solar eclipse include Casper, Wyoming; Kansas City, Kansas; St. Louis, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; and Greenville and Columbia, South Carolina. NASA has a special app, Eyes on the Eclipse (eclipse2017.nasa.gov/nasas-eyes), that allows viewers to determine what the eclipse will look like at a given zip code and what time it will occur.
Locally, JPL representatives will also be at the Pasadena Kidspace Children’s Museum from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Aug. 21. Free solar sunglasses from JPL will be available. (Regular sunglasses and even some offered online are not safe for looking directly at the sun. Visit eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety to learn how to make pinhole viewers and see the NASA live stream of the event across the nation.
If people can’t make it to Idaho or take time off from work to visit Kidspace, they can also try buying their own equipment, but they will have to act fast. Irvine-based Meade Instruments (which is participating in Astro-Con in Wyoming Aug. 16-19) has a line of affordable Eclipseview binoculars ($69.99) and white light telescopes ($79.99 to $189.99). The Eclipseview line comes with solar filters that can be removed for usage at nighttime. If money is no object, see more detail by investing in a Meade Coronado personal solar telescope which allows viewers to see only hydrogen-alpha light.
Besides “Eclipse Over America,” “NOVA” will be airing “The Farthest — Voyager in Space,” the story of the Voyager missions, which launched in 1977, at 9 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday, Aug. 23.
“The technology developed at JPL to visualize the Voyager missions is the forefather of the technologies being used to visualize the eclipse shown in our app,” Hussey said.
“Eclipse Over America” and “The Farthest” on “NOVA” will be available to stream the morning after broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.