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There goes the sun

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There goes the sun (photo courtesy University of Maine)

Talking solar eclipse with Emera Astronomy Center director Shawn Laatsch

ORONO – While Bonnie Tyler might have sung about a total eclipse of the heart back in 1983, a swath of the country is going to see a total eclipse of the sun here in 2017.

The cosmic event will take place on the afternoon of Aug. 21 across the continental United States. While the path of totality is a relatively narrow swath – about 70 miles wide – running roughly northwest to southeast across the country, everyone in the entire lower 48 will be able to see at least a partial eclipse – weather permitting of course.

A solar eclipse takes place when the moon passes between the sun and Earth and blocks all or part of the sun – sometimes for as long as three hours from beginning to end from any given location, though the length of time of totality is just a few minutes. For instance, in a given spot, this particular eclipse will offer a little more than two-and-a-half minutes of totality.

We’re not in the path of totality here in Maine. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t in for some impressive celestial excitement if we turn our eyes skyward on Aug. 21.

Shawn Laatsch is the director of the Emera Astronomy Center on the University of Maine campus in Orono.

“We do regular public programs at the planetarium,” Laatsch said. “There’s a different topic each month; for August, it made sense to do something about eclipses.”

The show – titled “Totality – Explore Eclipses” – has been running on Friday nights at 7 p.m. The hour-long program features a live introduction before taking a look at some of the basics when it comes to eclipses – what they are, how they happen, what we can learn from them.

In addition to the regular Friday evening showing, the Center is hosting two special showings the morning of the 21st – one at 10 a.m. and one at 11:30 a.m. The Center’s planetarium is the largest in Maine, with digital 4K projection and a full dome, allowing for a scale of presentation unlike anything else you’ll find in the state.

But while watching a show about eclipses is cool enough, what about seeing the real thing for yourself?

“We’re hosting people to view the eclipse here [at the Emera Astronomy Center],” Laatsch said. “From 1-4 p.m., we’ll be here with special glasses and filtered telescopes to help people see it safely.”

And safety is paramount. Our eyes aren’t equipped to deal with the dangers inherent to looking at the sun. There are no pain sensors in the eye, so looking too long at even a partially obscured sun could result in burnt retinas and other potentially irreparable damage.

“The key thing is being safe,” said Laatsch. “You can get solar eclipse glasses, but you need to make sure that they’re good ones. Make sure they’re certified; you can usually find an iso number on quality glasses. Aim for reliable manufacturers like Rainbow Symphony or American Paper Optics.

“These glasses will block 99.99 percent of the sun’s light,” he continued. “They’ll allow you to safely view [the eclipse].”

But even if you don’t have access to these special glasses, you have options. Welding glasses can be used as long as they’ve got a lens shade number of 14 or greater. And you could even go full DIY, according to Laatsch.

“If you don’t have glasses, you could do pinhole projection,” he said. “Just punch a pinhole in a piece of cardboard, stand with your back to the sun and let it shine through the hole. It’ll display an image on the ground.”

Regardless of how you check it out, you should really try and find a way. While solar eclipses happen about every 18 months or so, it’s rare to have one so conducive to nationwide viewing.

“This is the first time since 1918 that the entire lower 48 states will have the chance to see at least a partial eclipse at the same time,” said Laatsch.

Maine viewers aren’t getting totality this time around. The last time a total solar eclipse was viewable in our state was back in 1963. However, Laatsch says we won’t have to wait too long for part of Maine to fall into a path of totality.

“In 2024, we’re going to see totality here in Maine,” he said. “Not in Bangor or Orono, but the path will cross over Baxter State Park.”

And it will be well worth making the trip some seven years from now, according to Laatsch.

“I’ve seen three total in my lifetime so far,” he said. “One when I was younger and two as an adult. I tell folks that while seeing pictures and videos [of an eclipse] can be impressive, it’s nothing like experiencing totality in person.”

So if you’re interested in having your eclipse experience guided by experts, head on up to the Emera Astronomy Center on Aug. 21. It’s a chance to see something truly special. Shawn Laatsch is definitely looking forward to it.

“It’s one of the most spectacular events in all of nature,” he said.

(For more information about the Emera Astronomy Center, the Jordan Planetarium and their upcoming events, visit their website at astro.umaine.edu, call them at (207)581-1341 or find them on Facebook.)

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