Solar Eclipses: Past and Future

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — Debra Elmegreen, an astronomy professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, was one of the thousands of people that traveled to see the 2017 solar eclipse in totality. She went to Columbia, Missouri to experience two minutes and 40 seconds of totality.

“The sky turned a blue-gray…and the crickets went crazy around us,” Elmegreen said. “Suddenly it was just a symphony of sound.”

On August 21, 2017, the United States experienced a solar eclipse for the first time since 1979. Starting in Oregon and making its way through South Carolina, this solar eclipse was also the first one in almost a century to span the entire country.

“Celestial events can be jaw-dropping,” Elmegreen said. “I have never seen anything like this. When I was in high school, I was in Virginia where the eclipse was 97 percent total and I thought, ‘Well, that sounds pretty good, that’s almost total.’ No, it’s nothing like being total.”

According to a CNN article, a solar eclipse occurring where you live only happens once every 375 years. With the 2017 eclipse, over 12 million people live in the path of totality. However, people were so excited about this event that they traveled from around the country – and from other countries – to see the moon completely block out the sun.

“I love any time that they public gets so involved in science,” Rachel Cooper, a senior astronomy major at Vassar College, said. “It’s kind of ‘popular science’.”

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Rachel Cooper, observatory assistant at Vassar College’s Class of 1951 Observatory, works on the main telescope.

Although not everyone could make it to the path of totality, many people still made sure to watch the partial eclipse from where they were. At Vassar, the day of the eclipse coincided with Freshman Move-In Day, so eclipse glasses were handed out and there was a small solar telescope on the lawn in front of the library.

Cooper stayed home in Pennsylvania and saw about 80 percent coverage. She used her small telescope and solar filter to safely view the eclipse. “It was pretty cool,” Cooper said. “There was definitely a noticeable change in the daylight, which was neat – [it got] dimmer and cooler.”

Having studied the sun for so long, astronomers now know when and where the next eclipse will happen. However, it’s rare to have two solar eclipses in such a short period of time that cover the same area – according to Elmegreen, the last time this happened in the U.S. was in 1869 and 1878.

The 2024 eclipse will pass through the U.S., but it won’t cover the entire country like this year’s eclipse did – the next U.S. coast-to-coast solar eclipse will be in 2045. According to a CNN article, the 2024 one will start in Mexico, work its way through the U.S. and go through Maine, then it will move on to New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

“I think it won’t have such a big effect on the country, because it will have been not quite as long since the last one,” Cooper said. “I think it doesn’t have the same patriotism attached to it, because it’s not just going across the U.S. and it’s not going across all of the U.S. the way this last one [in 2017] did. People were calling it ‘the great American eclipse’.”

Regardless, both Elmegreen and Cooper are planning on seeing the 2024 eclipse in totality. “Each eclipse has its own different structure to it [and] its own little beauty that’s unique,” Elmegreen said. “People are now on the alert for [the eclipse] and if they got to see this one, they’re going to want to see the next one too – I can’t wait!”

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