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The Great American Eclipse

The Great American Eclipse

St. Louis sits in the path of this once-in-a-lifetime event to take place on Aug. 21

By Sara Hardin

An excited buzz has been stirring among those eager to witness an astronomical event that hasn’t graced St. Louis in over half a century. On Aug. 21, for the first time since 1442, our city will lie directly in the path of a total solar eclipse. The Great American Eclipse will sweep across 12 states, and will be the last total solar eclipse to cross over St. Louis until 2505.

In preparation for the day of the event, the St. Louis Astronomical Society (SLAS) and the St. Louis Eclipse 2017 Task Force have been working with schools, local government officials and parks departments on properly informing the public about what to expect.

“We have been presenting programs to libraries and schools during the school year, and to civic organizations.” said Rich Heuer, SLAS Board Member and St. Louis Eclipse 2017 Task Force member. “In some cases, schools have made major adjustments to their curriculum to incorporate to eclipse into what they were teaching in the spring. Local governments have been working on their events and activities, particularly within the path where the eclipse is total. We’ve been doing our best to inform the general public on what’s going on and how to watch the partial phases safely.”

The same rule about not looking at the sun applies during a solar eclipse. No matter how tempting it may be to look at it directly, there are certain crucial measures that must be taken and a few viewing methods to adopt in order to ensure safety.

“With an eclipse, there’s always caution that needs to be taken. Damaging things can happen to the eye if it’s not done properly,” explained Dr. Carl Bassi, Director of Research and Professor with the UMSL College of Optometry. “There are two major kinds of ways people typically have viewed eclipses. One is to indirectly view it through a pinhole. You can project the image through the pinhole onto a screen or onto a piece of paper just by holding the pinhole up and having the light project through that. When the sun is just starting to get covered up, you have to be wearing approved glasses to look directly at the eclipse. Make sure they’re approved by the International Organization for Standardization with the number ISO 12312-2. They have been made to certain specifications. Make sure to inspect the lenses as well to make sure they’re in good condition and not scratched.”

Only once the eclipse reaches the phase of totality, meaning the disc of the sun has been completely covered by the moon, is it safe to remove the glasses and look directly at the eclipse. Just before the crack of noon (and depending on where you are), the moon will begin passing between the earth and the sun. Approximately one hour later, periods of totality – or complete darkness – will occur across the state. The exact time depends on where you’re located. Officials in our area are expecting the partial eclipse will begin about 11:45 a.m. and the totality to occur at about 1:16 p.m. Totality will last about 1-3 minutes depending on where the eclipse is being viewed from. During that time, some interesting things will start to happen.

“The sky will turn a deep twilight if you’re in the path of totality,” said Heuer. “The planets will start to appear, Venus first and then Jupiter, and some of the brighter stars will appear. Eventually, the moon will be right in front of the sun and will block off the visible part of the sun’s surface, called the photosphere. The outer atmosphere of the sun will be exposed, called the corona. This is very thin gas that is very very hot, but very very sparse, so it’s only about as bright as the full moon. If there’s any part of the bright disc of the sun still visible, the corona won’t be visible. That’s why you have to be in the path of the total eclipse to be able to see the spectacular sight of the corona. It moves and changes shape noticeably right as you’re watching it. Some nocturnal animals may get confused by the darkness and make an appearance as well.”

To view the eclipse, it is best to travel a bit south from St. Louis to be completely in the eclipse’s path of totality. One of the major viewing events will be hosted by St. Louis County Parks at Jefferson Barracks Park. Gates will open for parking at 9 a.m. and booths and food trucks will be available starting at 10 a.m.

“We started planning for this event almost two years ago. There’s going to be some cool stuff at Jefferson Barracks,” said Eric Johnson, Complex Manager at Affton Community Center. “CBS Radio is a partner, and Fox 2 and Channel 11 are partnering. United States Postal Service is rolling out a new eclipse stamp, and they’re going to do an official unveiling on the stage at the park. We’re expecting several thousand people at the park. It’s easy in and easy out with close proximity to interstates 270 and 55. There will be plenty park rangers and St. Louis County police to direct you and keep everyone safe.”

St. Louis County Parks has had eclipse glasses available for sale for $1 per pair at Affton, Greensfelder, and Kennedy recreation complexes and the Pavilion at Lemay. Over 6,000 pairs have been sold, so it is best to check for availability before buying your own for the day of the event. Glasses can also be found online.

In addition to viewing safety, it is wise to consider your travel options before taking off for your destination on the day of the eclipse.

“There is going to be this massive influx of people into Missouri and into the St. Louis area and Carbondale [Illinois] in particular,” said Heuer. “The estimate is from 300,000 to 1.3 million people in addition to the roughly 1.6 million that live in the area. That can be a traffic nightmare. If the weather cooperates, traffic is going to be really, really heavy on routes like I-55 and I-44. If you’re going to travel, leave as early as you possibly can rather than trying to get there any time around the time of the eclipse. You may or may not get to where you’re going in time if you don’t give yourself more than enough cushion. Anticipate that the traffic will be very heavy. It helps if you have an idea of an alternate route. People coming in from out of town are going to be on the main interstates, so keep an eye out for possible Missouri and county roads that you can use if the main roads are difficult to navigate. Also remember that it’s in August, so make sure you have things like sunblock, mosquito repellent and plenty of water or some kind of fluid with you. Be prepared to be outside for an extended period of time.”

For more information about the Great American Eclipse, visit greatamericaneclipse.com. For more information on how to safely view a solar eclipse, how to create a pinhole projector and more, visit eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety.

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Eclipse tips

Prepare for the traffic
If you’re planning on taking a small road trip the day of the event give yourself plenty of time to get to the path of totality. Folks will be coming to St. Charles County from many neighboring states so be advised. You do not want to be stuck in the car on Interstate 70 watching a partial eclipse. 

Watch the weather
Clouds are not your friend. Don’t let the weather turn your eclipse excursion into a snoozer. Check the weather forecast regularly leading up and if, on the morning of, clouds are destined to be in your way you may want to consider a Plan B. But if you do encounter clouds don’t lose all hope as a total solar eclipse can part obstructing clouds.

Protect your eyes
Before and after the eclipse, when the moon is not completely blocking the sun, it’s essential to have some sort of protective eyewear to avoid damage to your eyes. Anyone watching the eclipse in its partial form will need to wear the glasses the entire time. You should absolutely take off your eclipse glasses during totality if you want to see it in all its splendor.