Have you made your plans yet to view the total solar eclipse happening on Monday, August 21? For the first time in 38 years, the continental United States will be treated to a total solar eclipse, during which time the moon's orbit will bring it between the earth and the sun, completely blocking the sun. In an even more rare treat, the eclipse will spread coast-to-coast across the U.S. for the first time in a century.
Much of the country will see only a partial eclipse—during which time the moon will only partially block the sun, allowing a crescent-shaped piece of the sun to appear behind the moon's edge—a still impressive phenomenon you should take the time to see. However, anyone in the "path of totality," the 70-mile-wide swath of land that ranges from Oregon southeast to South Carolina, will see the sun disappear from view for more than two minutes.
Whether you will be in an area that gets a total or partial eclipse, it's important to pay attention to safety precautions during the event. It is very dangerous to look directly at the sun. Normally, the intensity of the sun's rays makes us look away quickly, but because the moon's shadow will make them seem less bright, it will be tempting to stare at the sun. Don't do that—not even if you're wearing normal sun glasses or if you're looking through a camera or cell phone, because they will not block out the damaging rays. The sun is still very bright and while you won't notice a problem immediately (because your eyeball doesn't have any pain receptors), the next day you may wake up to discover you've damaged your eye's retina and no longer can see. (August is Children's Eye Health and Safety Month, so it would be a particular shame to disregard these warnings!)
However, there are safe ways to watch a solar eclipse! You can acquire a solar filter, either a specially made pair of glasses with lenses or a hand-held solar viewer, that blocks out dangerous rays and will allow you to look at the sun safely while using it. Because there have been reports of people marketing fraudulent and useless glasses, the American Astronomical Society has created a list of reputable dealers. (If you purchased a pair of glasses from Amazon that you now discover are fakes, Amazon has said they will issue refunds.) Also, nearly half of the libraries across the country have received complimentary pairs of solar glasses from STAR Library Network to accomodate patrons who wish to attend an eclipse event at their local library. You can check to see if your library is hosting an event by checking this site or by contacting your library directly.
You can also use simple and cheap supplies found around the house to make a pinhole projector (sometimes called a pinhole camera) that will allow you to look at the eclipse indirectly. (This means you'll look away from the eclipse and instead use shadows to look at a reflection of it on a piece of paper or the ground.) There are lots of tutorials online, including this one that NASA Goddard demonstrates in a video and this one that NASA JPL shows how to make. If you have more time and supplies, you can even make a box projector. If you're back in school, this might be a fun STEAM project to work on this week.
To make this week's astronomical event as fun and educational as possible, Science NetLinks has put together a collection of resources relating to solar eclipses, including videos, articles, citizen science activities, and related lesson plans, as well as suggestions for accomodations for those who can't see the eclipse and for remaining culturally sensitive to those whose heritage asks them not to watch the eclipse. We hope you find them useful in your classroom or at home.
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