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On Aug. 21, 2017, the moon will ride its elliptical orbit precisely between the Earth and the sun, plunging the land below into the crepuscule of a total solar eclipse.

Beginning at around 10 a.m. Pacific Time, the dark path of totality will sweep northwest to southeast across the United States, casting its eerie gloom upon Western towns such as Madras, Ore.; Rexburg, Idaho; and Casper, Wyo. The sky will turn violet; shadows will sharpen; pigeons will roost; and owls will take wing. Millions of umbraphiles—eclipse chasers—will crane their necks to witness more than two minutes of lunar ecstasy, transfixed by an occluded sun that science writer David Baron describes as “an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris … the eye of the cosmos.”

Although partial solar eclipses and lunar eclipses are relatively common, total solar eclipses are rarer beasts: When totality last traversed the entire width of the continental U.S., Woodrow Wilson was struggling to negotiate an end to World War I. Baron, himself a devoted umbraphile—you might call him a lunatic—has pursued the phenomenon to Germany, Australia and the Faroe Islands. His new book, American Eclipse, chronicles an instance much closer to home: the shadow that sped from Montana to Texas in 1878, perhaps the most significant total solar eclipse in the country’s history.

For much of the 19th century, the young United States was a second-rate nation, scientifically speaking, shrouded by what one astronomer deemed a “period of apparent intellectual darkness.” The 1878 eclipse promised to lift that metaphorical blackness by supplying literal dusk: Under the moon-dimmed Rocky Mountain sky, American scientists would have the opportunity to seek new planets, study the sun’s outer atmosphere, and even deduce its chemical composition. Researchers leapt at the chance to help America “fulfill its responsibility as an enlightened member of the global scientific community”—and, in the process, gain personal glory.

Westerners know Baron from his first book, The Beast in the Garden, which documented—some would say sensationalized—a series of cougar attacks in Colorado. In American Eclipse, the fiercest beasts are the scientists competing to document the astronomical anomaly. Baron introduces us to James Craig Watson, an astronomer with a Jupiter-sized ego who’s convinced that the eclipse will help him discover an unseen hypothetical planet called Vulcan. We meet Cleveland Abbe, a meteorologist, known charmingly as “Old Probabilities,” who persists in eclipse-watching at Pikes Peak despite a near-fatal case of high-altitude cerebral edema. And then there’s a young inventor named Thomas Edison, eager “to demonstrate that he was a scientist and no mere tinkerer” by measuring the heat of the sun’s corona with a zany (and ultimately failed) invention called the tasimeter.

Amid all this scientific machismo, the book’s most sympathetic character is Maria Mitchell, an astronomer and suffragette intent on demonstrating the equal abilities of women. At the time, certain pseudo-academics posited that “higher education caused a girl’s body—especially her reproductive organs—to atrophy.” To debunk this repugnant theory, Mitchell dispatched a cohort of “lady astronomers” to Colorado to study the eclipse and provide “a kind of political theater, promoting social change.” Mitchell’s mission succeeded—one newspaper called her squad “a conspicuous example of the power and grasp of the feminine intellect”—though the sexual-harassment scandals that roil modern astronomy prove that true equality still eludes the field.

American Eclipse’s most vivid character, though, is the fledgling West itself. In 1878, the region lingered in a kind of limbo: civilized enough that you could journey to Wyoming in a railcar hung with chandeliers, wild enough that your train stood a considerable risk of being boarded and cleaned out by bandits. The citizens of burgeoning Denver—a town that “aspired to elegance, even enlightenment”—were particularly desperate to prove their city’s worth to snooty East Coast scientists. As one local boasted to a visiting Englishman, “Sir, Colorado can beat the world in eclipses as in everything else.”

While modern astronomers no longer require eclipses to study the heavens, this year’s event will still inspire an epic pilgrimage. An eclipse festival in Oregon expects 30,000 visitors, and some Jackson hotels have been booked for three years.

We live with our eyes cast downward, fixed upon hand-sized screens; this year’s American eclipse offers a chance to lift our gaze to a universe far grander and stranger than the circumscribed worlds we cradle in our palms. “These rare and unearthly events … suspend human affairs and draw people out of their quotidian existence,” Baron writes. We may comprehend our solar system vastly better than we did in 1878, but our capacity for awe remains, fortunately, undiminished.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News

American Eclipse: A Nation's Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World

By David Baron

W.W. Norton and Company

352 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

The summer of 2017 marks the 54th anniversary of my first successful expedition to observe a total solar eclipse.

The date was July 20, 1963, when our carload of astronomy graduate students from the University of Michigan made the long drive from Ann Arbor to the path of totality in Quebec. Cumulus clouds parted—and we had a spectacular view.

When it came to astronomy, I was hooked.

I hope some of you have a chance to make the journey to the August eclipse’s path of totality. This event is part of the Saros series—same as the eclipse I saw in 1963. These eclipses are spaced at intervals of 18 years plus about 11 1/3 days, and after three Saros intervals—called an Exeligmos—a solar eclipse very much like the one in 1963 happens again, within a similar track through our region of the world, only farther south. Instead of Alaska through Canada and Maine as in ’63, the ringside seats on Monday, Aug. 21, will be in Oregon to South Carolina, making this eclipse an exclusively American event.

Even if you can’t go to Oregon or another spot within the path of totality that day, there are many ways to safely observe the partial solar eclipse here. In California, it starts between 9:01 a.m. (on the Pacific Coast near Point Arena) and 9:11 a.m., when the noon’s penumbral (partial) shadow reaches the far southeast corner of the state, on the Arizona border. The moon’s penumbra begins to withdraw from California just after 11:34 a.m., when the eclipse ends on the Pacific Coast near Capetown. The moon’s outer shadow completely leaves the state just south of the Parker Dam on the Colorado River just after 11:55 a.m.

From most locations in California, the first contact of the moon with the sun’s disk occurs near the top of the solar disk (near “12 o’clock” on the disk, if it is imagined as a clock face). At greatest eclipse, the moon covers the upper left portion of the solar disk, centered near the equivalent of 10 o’clock, leaving a brilliant solar crescent uncovered near 4 o’clock. Last contact of the moon’s disk with the sun will occur at the lower left edge of the disk, near the 8 o’clock position. Of course, you must use proper eye protection to observe these events directly; see the web resources below. If you don’t have a solar filter, you can use projection methods.

Follow the moon before the solar eclipse: On Aug. 7, two weeks before the solar eclipse, there will be a full moon, with a partial lunar eclipse—but that event isn’t visible from our part of the world. (It occurs during our daytime, when the full moon, opposite the sun, is below our horizon.) Instead, watch a nearly full moon rise shortly before sunset of Aug. 6, and just a few minutes after sunset on Aug. 7. For the next several evenings, you can watch the moon rising later each night—or, you can shift your moon viewing time to mornings, either in predawn darkness or in the daytime after sunrise. Observe in the predawn darkness hours on Saturday, Aug. 12, and you’ll catch the Perseid meteor shower nearing its peak. Unfortunately, in 2017 the waning gibbous moon, still over three-quarters full that morning, will brighten the sky and reduce the number of meteors seen.

By the morning of Aug. 15, the moon will be just past last quarter phase, when it’s half full and 90 degrees west of the sun, but by then, the meteor shower activity will be well below peak. On the next morning, Aug. 16, look for bright Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, the Bull, just to the upper right of the crescent moon. Observe beautiful pairings of Venus with the waning crescent moon on Aug. 19 and 20.

As for Perseid meteors in evening: After the full moon of Aug. 7, the moon rises later each night, and by Aug. 11, it rises at 10:14 p.m., more than an hour after the end of evening twilight, at 9:08 p.m. In places far from the bright lights of human settlement—such as in Joshua Tree National Park or Borrego Springs—the sky will be very dark before moonrise, allowing spectacular views of the summer Milky Way and of Perseid meteors. Even before 9 p.m., the sky will be dark enough to observe some meteors. They might be seen anywhere in the sky, and the shower’s “radiant,” or the direction from which the meteors approach Earth, can be found by extending their trails backward to a common origin. Around 9 p.m., the radiant lies just a few degrees above the horizon in the north-northeast. When the radiant is low, the meteoroid particles enter Earth’s atmosphere at a very shallow angle, and very long trails of “Earth-grazing” meteors will be seen. As the night progresses, the radiant in the upper part of the constellation Perseus rises to more than 60 degrees above the horizon by the start of morning twilight, shortly after 4:30 a.m., and our part of the Earth will be presented more broadside to the incoming meteor stream. The meteor count would increase dramatically—were it not for the bright moon after it rises into view.

Good news for 2018: The Perseid peak will occur within two days after new moon, on the night of Aug. 10-11, so it will be a wonderful year for the shower!

Seasonal motions of stars: Venus now dominates the predawn sky, but is getting a little lower each morning, because it is heading toward the far side of the sun, where it will arrive in January 2018.

Annually by the beginning of August, there are several bright stars in the eastern morning sky. During the second week, Procyon and the Dog Star Sirius, the brightest star (not as bright as Venus) rise into view. Beginning then, if you catch Sirius rising in the east-southeast before Altair sets just north of west, you’ll see both the Summer and Winter Triangles—Vega, Altair and Deneb in the west to northwest, and Betelgeuse, Procyon and Sirius in the east to southeast—simultaneously, provided mountains don’t block Altair or Sirius from your view.

Follow the moon in the evening sky after the solar eclipse: Careful viewers might spot the young crescent moon early on Tuesday evening, Aug. 22, just 2 or 3 degrees above the horizon about 25 minutes after sunset, where no surroundings obstruct the view. It’ll be much easier to spot the crescent starting on Aug. 23. Through Aug. 31, notice the moon passing by two planets: Jupiter (with Spica nearby) on Aug. 24 and 25, and Saturn (with twinkling reddish Antares to its west) on Aug. 29 and 30.

To help you plan evening or morning planet viewing during the coming year (August 2017 to August 2018), refer to Jeffrey Hunt’s two-page graphic summary of the moon and planet setting and rising times relative to times of sunset and sunrise, exact for Palm Springs.

To help you plan evening or morning planet viewing during the coming year (August 2017 to August 2018), refer to Jeffrey Hunt’s two-page graphic summary of the moon and planet setting and rising times relative to times of sunset and sunrise, exact for Palm Springs, under the August AM sky chart below.

Wishing you clear skies!

Solar Eclipse information and Resources

Robert C. Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing sky watching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs. Robert D. Miller did graduate work in planetarium science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy. Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt, a retired planetarium director now living in the Chicago area, has taught astronomy and sky watching to all ages.  He studied astronomy education at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. Jeff writes an astronomy blog at and can be followed on Twitter at @jeff_hunt.

Published in Astronomy

There are two eclipses in October 2014!

The first is a total lunar eclipse, in the predawn hours of Wednesday, Oct. 8. You’ll want to set your alarm when you turn in for the night on Tuesday.

Here are the times for the various stages of the Oct. 8 lunar eclipse for the Pacific time zone, with the moon’s position in Palm Springs.

  • Moon enters umbra at 2:15 a.m. (moon’s azimuth is at 227 degrees; altitude is 52 degrees).
  • Total eclipse begins at 3:25 a.m. (245°; 41°).
  • Deepest eclipse is at 3:55 a.m. (251°; 35°).
  • Total eclipse ends at 4:24 a.m. (256°; 29°).
  • Moon leaves umbra at 5:34 a.m. (267°; 16°).

During totality in Palm Springs, Uranus (magnitude 5.7) should be visible in binoculars nearly 1 degree to the left or lower left of the center of the eclipsed moon. A medium to high power telescope reveals the planet’s disk, 3.7 arcseconds across.

October’s second eclipse is a partial solar event, in the afternoon on Thursday, Oct. 23.

A solar eclipse can be viewed indirectly, by looking at a projected image. Take a postcard or 3-by-5-inch index card; puncture a small pencil point hole in the center of the card; and allow the projected image of the sun to fall on a second white card, held 3 or 4 feet away, in the shadow of the first card. You can improve the view by using a long cardboard box: Cut a large hole at one end, and cover that hole with the first index card with the small puncture hole. Then tape a sheet of white paper inside the box at the opposite end, to serve as a screen.

You can also stand in the shade of a tree and look for projected images of the eclipsed sun, on the ground or on a sheet you have spread on the ground, or on the side of a light-colored building. Try this method a few days before the eclipse, at the same time of day, and look for round projected images of the full disk of the sun.

Groups organizing a solar eclipse watch can also order a quantity of solar eclipse viewers for participants. Both hand-held safe eclipse viewers and eclipse glasses (to be worn like regular eyeglasses) are available from Rainbow Symphony. Both styles are identically priced and employ the same filter materials. The minimum quantity for those items is 25, at 85 cents each, with bigger discounts for larger quantities. To order, go to, and click on eclipse shades.

The viewers can be kept for use during future eclipses! In the next 10 years, there will be three more solar eclipses visible from California. These filters can also be used to check for sunspots; very large ones would be visible through the filter.

In Palm Springs, the eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23, begins at 2:12 p.m., as the moon’s disk makes first contact with the upper right edge of the sun’s disk. Greatest eclipse for Palm Springs occurs at 3:31 p.m., as the moon’s disk covers the upper right portion of the sun’s disk—45 percent of the solar diameter, or 33 percent of the disk area. The eclipse ends at 4:41 p.m., as the moon’s disk makes last contact with the upper left edge of the solar disk.

During the eclipse in Palm Springs, the sun will be sinking through the southwestern sky, at an altitude ranging from 38 degrees at the start of the event, to 15 degrees at the end.

Robert C. Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.

Published in Astronomy