Total Eclipse of the Sun

On Monday, April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will cross North America, passing over Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Today’s post, an update of Riley Lindheimer’s 2017 piece, looks a solar eclipses past and present. Visit the National Archives website for more information.

On April 8, 2024, the continental United States will experience the first total solar eclipse since 2017. This celestial phenomenon has inspired awe in viewers around the world for centuries.

Although partial solar eclipses occur more frequently, total solar eclipses require the perfect alignment of the Sun, Moon, and Earth.

Observers in the “path of totality,” a narrow path of visibility, will experience a period of temporary darkness while the moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, blocking the Sun and its corona.

In 2017, the path spanned the contiguous United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. For 2024, it enters the U.S. in Texas and exits in Maine.

The phenomenon takes place over the course of about three hours, with observers in the path only able to view the eclipse for a couple of minutes in any given location. This fleeting window adds to the excitement and novelty of the total solar eclipse, motivating people to travel miles to be in the path of totality. Eclipse gazers of the past explain how during those few minutes in the moon’s shadow, the sky turns so dark that constellations can be seen and owls hoot.

Before the 2017 eclipse, the last total solar eclipse in the continental United States occurred on February 26, 1979, with the path of totality only falling in the Pacific Northwest region of Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota.

Photographers, astronomers, and everyday people wished for unseasonably clear weather so that they could have the opportunity to join the long history of eclipse watchers.

On that day in 1979, National Wildlife Refuge workers in North and South Dakota were able to catch a glimpse of this beautiful natural occurrence.

In their annual reports, workers identified the solar eclipse as an “item of interest,” including pictures of photographers who attempted to document the event and creating time lapses that captured the solar corona.

An entry in the annual report of the Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge in Martin, South Dakota, described how the refuge manager was able to safely photograph the eclipse through a welding mask.

With the growing interest of the public, solar eclipses have become huge events for towns within the path of totality. NASA and other organizations have worked to promote safe viewing practices for solar eclipses. To safely view an eclipse and to learn what to expect, visit NASA’s website.

Tips to safely view the eclipse include:

  • View the sun through eclipse glasses or a handheld solar viewer during the partial eclipse phases before and after totality.
  • Do NOT use eclipse glasses or handheld viewers with cameras, binoculars, or telescopes.
  • Do NOT look at the sun through a camera lens, telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device while wearing eclipse glasses or using a handheld solar viewer—the concentrated solar rays will burn through the filter and cause serious eye injury.
  • You can view the eclipse directly without proper eye protection only when the moon completely obscures the sun’s bright face—during the brief and spectacular period known as totality.
  • As soon as you see even a little bit of the bright sun reappear after totality, immediately put your eclipse glasses back on or use a handheld solar viewer to look at the sun.
  • Seek expert advice from an astronomer before using a solar filter with a camera, telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device. Note that solar filters must be attached to the front of any telescope, binoculars, camera lens, or other optics.

On April 8, experienced astronomers and novice eclipse enthusiasts across the country will be able to witness the historic event. Whether you are in the path of totality or not, we encourage you to find a local viewing event in your area because you will not want to miss it!

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