Astronomer shares pro tip for finding the best place to watch the eclipse

NASA's mapping of the eclipse provides precise path of totality

NASA data visualizer Ernie Wright explains how he accounted for the jagged surface of the moon and the varying elevation in the U.S. to precisely map the path of totality for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.
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NASA data visualizer Ernie Wright explains how he accounted for the jagged surface of the moon and the varying elevation in the U.S. to precisely map the path of totality for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

From astronomers to outdoor enthusiasts, astrophysicists to laymen — many are giddy about the coming totality of a solar eclipse.

But where to watch it unfold is a question facing eclipse hunters as the Aug. 21 event approaches.

Daniel McIntosh, a distinguished professor of astronomy and physics at UMKC, has diligently plotted out where he’ll observe the eclipse, and he shared a pro tip that he himself is using to pick out a location: find a hill with a view to the west.

“So you can see the western horizon,” he said. “You’ll see the shadow as it comes toward you.”

The moon’s shadow will approach you at about 1000 mph, McIntosh added, which is approximately 50 miles every three minutes. That sort of speed can be shocking, enough to even cause people to flinch as the darkness washes over them.

To find his perfect spot, McIntosh has circled numerous hills from Nebraska to Wyoming as contingency plans should clouds obscure his view.

He recommended using NASA’s interactive map to scroll down to the street level to locate western-facing hills with unobscured views of the horizon. He also recommended seeking a spot in the center of the path of totality, where the eclipse will last the longest — about 2 minutes and 38 seconds.

Observers should also be aware that some maps that show the moon’s shadow during the eclipse are not entirely accurate.

To ensure as many people as possible are in the right place to observe totality, NASA visualizer Ernie Wright of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland created a precise map of the shadow’s path, which was shared on the NASA Sun Science Facebook page on Saturday.

“Sudden darkness of totality is something a lot of people can’t compare to anything else,” Wright said in the video.

As he explained how he created the detailed map, Wright said he accounted for the moon’s jagged surface, full of peaks and valleys. Peaks will block the sun’s rays, while “valleys let the sun in a few seconds longer than we thought.”

eclipse path
NASA’s visualization of the total solar eclipse shows precise path of totality. NASA, Ernie Wright

The elevation of observers here on earth will also affect the length of totality.

Maps that show the moon’s shadow as a regular oval moving across the earth are not entirely accurate, Wright said. The actual shape is an irregular polygon. Check out the video for more interesting insights into how the moon’s shadow was precisely plotted.

The eclipse’s 70-mile wide path of totality means there’s no need to wade into a crush of humanity to view historic celestial event.

Citizens can participate in eclipse science

During the eclipse, a number of citizen-led initiatives will be conducted to gather data about the event.

The American Astronomical Society lists the projects, which are organized by a variety of groups, and provides details about how everyday citizens can get involved during the eclipse:

▪ A do-it-yourself relativity test that requires only off-the-shelf equipment and allows you to prove Albert Einstein’s famous theory of relativity.

▪ An eclipse edge determination experiment allows citizens to help pinpoint the precise edge of the path of totality.

▪ Eclipse “megamovie” project will piece together images and videos of the event collected by trained citizens to provide data sets that “far exceed what any one person could capture from a single location.”

▪ The “Life Responds” project asks citizens to download the iNaturalist app to record the behavior changes of animals observed during the eclipse.

For more projects, visit the American Astronomical Society.

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg