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The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017

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Photo Credit: Veronica Ward

Travelling across the United States from the northwestern coast of Oregon and ending on South Carolina’s east coast, the Great American Solar Eclipse can rightfully called a once in a lifetime experience for most. This event was the rarer total solar eclipse, in which the moon “totally” blocks or eclipses the sun. For a total solar eclipse to occur, there must be a New Moon present and it has to be in conjunction with the sun. What makes total eclipses rare is the moon’s tilted and elliptical orbit in respect to the earth and sun, as well as its small shadow.

 

Alignment of the earth, moon, and sun is key for any eclipse to occur. Whether it’s a lunar eclipse or a solar eclipse, alignment must be perfect for them to occur. The orbits of the moon and earth are tilted and elliptical, meaning neither orbits perfectly line up every New Moon and they don’t travel in a circular motion around the sun. If both the moon and earth’s orbits were circular and untilted, then we would have an eclipse every month. Since this isn’t the case, we only get around four eclipses each year: two lunar and two solar.

During a total solar eclipse, the moon’s shadow moves across the earth’s surface and one must be in the shadow to view its totality. The moon’s shadow is broken into two parts: the umbra and the penumbra. The umbra is the darkest part of the shadow where no sunlight reaches it, whereas the penumbra is the lighter part where some but not all of the sun’s light reaches (partial shadow). The path of totality on earth is located at the tip of the umbra which is cone-shaped. Since only the tip of the moon’s umbra hits earth, it lessens the chance for a total solar eclipse to be viewed. A majority of the time, the shadow will move partially over land and then finish most of the eclipse over one of the oceans, where very few people are likely to view it.

In the duration of a solar eclipse, the sun’s light is twice as bright as it usually is, making it harmful to the naked eye. The light is magnified through the lens

e of the eye and burns cells away in the retina. Appropriate eye-wear is needed in order to view the eclipse up until full totality. Once totality hits and the corona is visible, solar shades may be removed to view the darkened moon surrounded by a white glowing ring (corona). Totality lasts only a few minutes in the shadow path, and less so on the edges of the path. Surrounding areas outside of the umbra only view a partial eclipse.

The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 was truly a rare and awe-inspiring event. The last total solar eclipse visible in Knoxville was on August 7, 1869. The next total solar eclipse to occur in the Knoxville area is not going to happen until 2157. However, the next total eclipse to sweep across the continental United States will happen in 2024. The physics and geometry involved in this astounding phenomenon was mind blowing and watching it was incredibly humbling.

 

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The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017