After more than 38 years 14,057 days to be precise the path of a total solar eclipse will traverse American soil. It hasnt happened anywhere in the U.S. since Feb. 26, 1979.
Millions of people from coast-to-coast will turn their gaze skyward on Monday hoping for a glimpse of whats being billed as the Great American Eclipse, so named because the eclipse will occur exclusively in the United States. Adding to the allure, it will be the first total solar eclipse to cross the entire country from west coast to east coast in 99 years.
Over the ages, more than 107 billion people are estimated to have inhabited the Earth. Fewer than 600 have escaped the planets gravitational bounds and flown into space. A group of fewer than 20, however, have seen a solar eclipse from space.
The latter group is expected to grow on Monday as the crew of the International Space Station is expected to catch a glimpse of the moons umbra the 70-mile-wide dark, inner shadow moving across the American heartland.
Its an awe-inspiring view for those fortunate enough to have the experience.
Were a very fortunate group, said Bill McArthur, a recently retired NASA astronaut and a veteran of four spaceflights. You realize very quickly youre very blessed to get to experience something like that.
McArthur would know. He was serving as commander and science officer of Expedition 12 aboard the International Space Station on March 29, 2006, when a total solar eclipse crossed the Earths surface from the eastern tip of Brazil across the Atlantic Ocean and portions of Africa before ending over portions of Mongolia.
Despite the countless hours astronauts spend training for each mission to space, McArthur said he didnt know about the eclipse until just a few days beforehand.
Theres always a bit of pressure to be as prepared as you can be knowing if you blink youll miss it, so to speak, McArthur said.
It was a similar experience for Donald Pettit, a current NASA astronaut and a veteran of three spaceflights.
You have this amazing view that you cant get any other way than being in space, Pettit said. You can see all these structural details the umbra, the penumbra (the moons lighter outer shadow) that astronomers and physicists through the ages never actually saw, yet they mathematically worked it out, and you get to see that they were right.
Neither McArthur nor Pettit has ever seen a total solar eclipse from Earth. While theyve both seen one from space, Pettit holds another distinction.
Ive seen two from orbit, Pettit said. Its about time I see one from Earth.
Pettits first encounter was with a total solar eclipse on Dec. 4, 2002, as part of Expedition 6 on the International Space Station. The second was an annular solar eclipse one where the moon isnt quite big enough to cover the entire sun so a narrow ring of fire is visible on the edge as part of Expedition 31 on May 20, 2012.
Its just amazing to be able to see whats going on on the scale of half a continent, Pettit said. Its something you cant see with your feet on the ground or in an airplane. You have to have the vantage point of being in space.
Many members of the Michiana Astronomical Society are hitting the roads for the eclipse.
The moons shadow will travel about 10,000 miles across the Earths surface, from the middle of the Pacific Ocean across the continental United States to the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. The umbra will spend about an hour and a half crossing 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina.
Linda Marks, the vice president of the Michiana Astronomical Society, said society members will be spread out from coast to coast.
Were pretty much everywhere, she said.
While all of North America will have a view of a partial eclipse, weather permitting, club members are hedging their bets on being in the path of totality. In South Bend, the moon is expected to block about 86 percent of the sun with the maximum eclipse coming at 2:22 p.m., according to NASA.
One of the clubs members, Granger resident Chuck Bueter, an amateur astronomer and past president of the society who hosts a blog at Nightwise.org, is heading for Idaho. Its not just the total eclipse hes hoping to see, however.
One of the many splendors of an eclipse is youve got all these people looking skyward, Bueter said. After the eclipse, keep looking up. With the new moon at night its going to be amazing stargazing.
As excited as Bueter is for this eclipse, hes equally excited for the next opportunity to see a total solar eclipse in the U.S. April 8, 2024. It will be another eclipse exclusive to North America as the umbra will cross Canada, Mexico and the United States. The part that has Bueter most excited is that unlike Mondays eclipse, the path of totality will cross Indiana, just south of Indianapolis.
Were going to have totality in Indiana, Bueter said. We should prepare now.
Having viewed Earth from the perspective of space on multiple occasions, both Pettit and McArthur said one of the aspects of Mondays eclipse that excites them is the opportunity it presents to pique the interest of the next generation of explorers and scientists.
Any time some natural event piques scientific interest in the public thats a good thing, Pettit said. Theres any number of things that happen that show science and math front and center in terms of trying to explain what is going on.
The universe is an amazing thing, yet so much of it is still a mystery, he said. The more we can inspire curiosity I think the better off we are in the long run. We have the next generation of adults that understand where we stand in the grand scheme of things, our place, our environment and how to be good stewards for future generations.
Are you ready for the Great American Eclipse? These NASA astronaut saw one from space. – South Bend Tribune