West Coast to East Coast Eclipse

The 2017 eclipse will truly be an American Eclipse because everyone in North America will see at least a partial eclipse. In the continental US the lowest partial eclipse will be 48% in the northern tip of Maine. Although the entire US will have at least a partial eclipse on August 21, 2017, the real action is going to be the little swath where totality will occur. Whereas a partial eclipse is interesting to see, totality is another thing entirely.

Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA's GSFC

What to Expect When You're Expecting a Total Solar Eclipse

We strongly encourage you to go to someplace with totality for this eclipse. If you come to the University of Illinois, Department of Astronomy viewing in Goreville, Illinois, we will have a live explanation of what you will be seeing. Here we summarize what happens.

Image Credit: Helder da Rocha

At first a solar eclipse appears slow, as just a small part of the Sun is blocked by the Moon. You won't be able to tell anything is happening unless you look at the Sun. You won't need a telescope, but you will need protective eyewear (see "Safety"). If you look at the Sun, you begin to see a small portion of the Sun being obscured. In Goreville, the process will start at 11:53 AM on Monday, August 21, 2017.

As you watch the Sun, it becomes more and more obscured by the Moon, and you will begin to notice differences in your surroundings. When the Sun is a little more than half covered, the color of the sky will slowly become a duller shade of blue. Shadows on the ground will appear sharper as the apparent size of the Sun shrinks. If you look in the shadows of trees, the gaps in the shadows will begin to look weird. It may take a while for you to realize it, but there will be many crescent shapes in the shadows. The tiny gaps in the leaves will act like multiple pinhole cameras, projecting the Sun's image to the ground. When an eclipse is not happening, they are there too, as circles, but these don't catch our attention since they blend together.

Very slowly, almost imperceptibly, as we move toward totality, the western sky will become a little darker than the eastern sky (the shadow is approaching!), and slowly the colors of the landscape become more muted and gray-ish. The Sun becomes a smaller and smaller crescent, but is still very bright. (You will need eye protection up until totality.) When there is about 5 minutes until totality, the western sky becomes darker and darker, beginning to shroud the Sun in darkness.

Holes in the canopy of tree project images of partial eclipse onto the ground

With only a few minutes until totality (around 1:20 PM in Goreville), shadow bands may be seen right before (and after) totality. These are rapidly shimmering bands of shadow on the ground or any flat surface (lighter colored surfaces show this best). The bands are formed when the final bits of sunlight from the last wedge of the remaining crescent of the Sun are distorted by the Earth's atmosphere. You can see similar effects by shining a flashlight over a lit candle; the eddies of motion around the candle cause variations in the atmosphere which affect the light projected from the flashlight. Shadow bands are not always seen during an eclipse (it depends on the atmosphere).

As totality is almost reached, the last sliver of Sun is slipping away in silence, darkness is almost surrounding you. One can see bright spots around the edge of the Moon, where the valleys and mountains on the Moon allow sunlight through in some places but not in others. This effect is often called "Baily's Beads" after the first person to explain the effect, Francis Baily. Right before totality, the last bead is left with a final glimpse of the Sun peering out, making a beautiful "diamond ring" affect. Encompassing the diamond is the faint glow that surrounds the nearly perfectly darkened Sun. This glow is the corona (Latin for "crown"), which is an aura of plasma that always surrounds the Sun but cannot be seen over the brightness of the undarkened Sun.

Shadow bands seen on a roll of paper just before totality (Image Credit: Dr. Wolfgang Strickling)

Then, quietly, calmly, and almost instantaneously the Sun is swallowed by the Moon. Boom, it is totality! It hits you suddenly, even though you were expecting it. A marvel of nature: a perfectly dark disk outlined with the outstanding corona (which is best viewed by the naked eye - it's safe now and as bright as a full Moon) shines in your eyes. An eerie quiet covers the landscape, birds and other animals seem confused and quiet down to rest. Light breezes stop. The temperature drops by 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. A closer look at the Sun may reveal little wisps of red, which are solar prominences, giant clouds of hot gas and plasma. This is it. What we have been preparing for. A special moment of calm and of beauty. You stand in the shadow of the Moon!

Look around, it is not pitch dark. But it is an uniquely odd darkness. At the horizon, you can still see areas around you where the eclipse is only partial. It should be dark enough to see nearly all of the planets. To the west is Mars and farther out is Venus. To the east is Mercury and Jupiter. Closer to the Sun, about 2 solar diameters away to the east, is a bright star called Regulus, and maybe you will see Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, in the southwest sky.

Diamond ring effect - the last Baily Bead

Live in this moment. You will try to look everywhere at once. But all too soon you feel the shadow rushing away. The western sky is beginning to brighten. You were in the moment, but the moment is passing. The shadow silently moves away from you into the east, providing the experience to others - your time is up (in Goreville this is 1:23 PM). The diamond ring returns, but this time it is somehow not as beautiful - pale compared to the experience of just seconds ago. You will breathlessly ask, "When can I do this again?"

Best Place to Observe the Eclipse?

First of all, the best place to see the eclipse is wherever you can get in the continental US within the path of totality. The most important aspect is weather. You need clear skies to see the complete glory of the eclipse. That being said, there are two special locations. The location of the greatest eclipse, where the shadow of the Moon is the largest on the Earth, which is near Hopkinsville, Kentucky. The second location is that of the greatest eclipse duration on the Earth, which is near Goreville, IL. We have chosen to view the eclipse here, in Goreville, owing to its great location and accessibility from Urbana-Champaign and Chicago.