Stargazing: Solar eclipses, past and future

Tom Burns - Stargazing

On August 21, I will be deep in the Sawtooth State Forest near the little town of Stanley, Idaho to observe my second total eclipse of the sun.

Driving 2,000 miles seems a crazy thing to do, but memories of my first and only totality make it all seem worthwhile.

Here in Central Ohio the eclipse will be partial. About 85 percent of the sun’s disk will be blocked, and it’s certainly worth picking up a pair of eclipse glasses at Half Price books to view the event safely.

Along a 70-mile wide strip of America that stretches from Oregon to South Carolina, the entire disk of the sun will be blocked for about two minutes. For us, the closest places to go will be Parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. However, if you have the time and inclination, driving there might just might be a life-altering experience.

My only experience of totality happened on July 11, 1991.

I was aboard board the cruise ship Viking Serenade off the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Around 1,700 eclipse watchers — many of whom had slept all night on the ship’s deck — were given a rare view of parts of the sun that generally are only visible during an eclipse.

The experience was memorable, but my heart and mind keep coming back to sister eclipse chaser and retired schoolteacher Ruth Walker, who stood beside me that day. The ship was anchored along the eclipse line at the point where the eclipse was longest in duration, one of the few places along the line that was not restricted by cloud cover. The sun stood almost overhead for the event, an unusual location for the many central Ohioans on the cruise, and many of us suffered strong sunburns. Even for those people hampered by clouds, the moon in a 140-mile path stretching from Hawaii to Brazil blocked the sun. In those locations, an unnatural daytime darkness occurred.

At about 10:30, the moon took the first bite of the solar disk. Slowly, over the course of the next 1 1/2 hours, the sun was slowly obscured until it was the thinnest of crescents.

At 11:56 a.m., the last speck of dazzling sunshine shone through a lunar valley. Then came the spectacular “diamond ring” effect as an entire blackened disk was surrounded with a thin strip of the sun’s glowing outer atmosphere, and a single, blinding point of light blazed for a split second like a sparkling gem. During the next six minutes and 57 seconds, the eerie silence was only occasionally punctuated by gasps of amazement. The stars were easily visible in the azure sky, and four planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter – were lined up near the sun. During the nearly seven minutes of totality, the sun’s corona, the outermost part of light, surrounded the dark hole where the sun had eclipsed the moon. The corona extends 100,000 miles in every direction from the sun and consists of the sun’s energy and hot gasses erupting into space. The corona did not appear as the expected uniform halo around the dark hole,

however. Gigantic streams of opalescent light shot many thousands of miles into space. In the streamers were dark, thin parallel striations, and the sun’s corona looked like silvery feather boas shifting gently in the solar wind.

Then, abruptly, the diamond ring appeared again and the sun was reborn. Afterward, a few central Ohioans sat together at dinner. Of all the reactions to the experience, the most memorable to me were those of Ruth Walker, who was 71 at the time. She described the corona as “delicate white brushstrokes.”

“Brushstrokes in flight,” added Debra Moon, also from Columbus. She was making a reference to a sculpture that still stands at the John Glenn International Airport in Columbus. The corona was shot through with bright pink, fingerlike projections, called solar prominences, which extended thousands of miles from the sun’s surface. Some extended straight upward from the sun. Others looped downward to the sun’s surface. Still others hung motionless like tiny pink streamers, disconnected from the sun’s surface. Moon described them as “brilliant, almost phosphorescent.” Walker, who was watching her first eclipse, described it as “the most spectacular thing I have ever seen.” And I concurred. I have seen much of nature since then, and when I am asked, I invariably say that the sun’s corona is the most beautiful natural sight that humans can behold. Ruth will be 97 when the next total solar eclipse touches North America in 2017. She said she is looking forward to being there as the moon’s shadow again plunges Earth into darkness.

And that time has finally come. As I type these lines, I sit and wonder whether she is still on the planet. But I am certain, wherever she is, she will be standing beside me as the shimmering corona again bathes the world in its eerie, unearthly splendor and we stand together in the shadow of the moon.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.