West Virginia to witness once-in-a-lifetime celestial event

On Monday, hundreds of factors will perfectly align to create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for inhabitants of the Mountain State. The moon will position itself between the Earth and sun, obscuring the sun’s powerful rays and casting a shadow over the Earth’s surface — and West Virginia is poised to provide a near-perfect vantage point.

As the moon orbits the Earth, it occasionally aligns with the sun and Earth, creating what astronomers call a syzygy — an alignment of three celestial bodies. Although the moon is about 400 times smaller than the sun, it is also about 400 times closer to the Earth than the sun is, meaning the moon is able to prevent the star’s light from reaching Earth’s surface during this alignment. The eclipse will last approximately 2 1/2 hours, occurring from about 2-4:30 p.m.

Although solar eclipses happen multiple times a year, the opportunity to properly experience one is uncommon. This will be the last total solar eclipse to grace the contiguous United States until 2044. Although the 2044 event will be partially visible from West Virginia, it will be best viewed in the western United States. The 100-mile-wide path of totality of Monday’s eclipse will span from west to east across North America, from Mexico to the Great Lakes to eastern Canada. Although this path does not include West Virginia, the state will experience a partial solar eclipse with approximately 95% coverage — greater than the 2017 solar eclipse that many locals may remember.

“The next one to be this close is probably 100 years from now. If you want to see close to a total solar eclipse in West Virginia, this is your chance,” said WVU Planetarium teaching assistant and Ph.D. physics and astronomy student Jackson Taylor.

Experiencing a solar eclipse is a unique experience both in this lifetime and in the vastness of time and space. Due to the specific sizes and positions of the Earth, moon and sun, no other planet has eclipses in the same way. In addition, the moon is gradually moving farther from the Earth, meaning in about 60 million years, the moon will be too far away for this to happen.

Moreover, a solar eclipse presents a valuable research opportunity for astronomers.

Within the past year, WVU Physics and Astronomy graduate students Hasith Perera, Gabriela Himmele and Justin Bowman have worked with students from Morgantown High School, Trinity Christian High School and Glenville State University to construct a high-altitude balloon system capable of atmospheric data collection. On Monday, the group’s weather balloon will launch from within the eclipse’s path of totality in Waterford, Pa. The device will measure temperature, humidity pressure and UV irradiance profiles of the atmosphere before, during and following the eclipse; this aims to study how the sudden removal of heating impacts the atmospheric layers during an eclipse. This project is part of West Virginia Balloon Engineering for Atmospheric Research (WVBEAR) and the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project.

The eclipse also creates educational outreach opportunities. The WVU Planetarium will host a solar eclipse viewing party from 1:30-4 p.m. Monday on the Mountainlair Lawn, distributing eclipse glasses to attendees and providing expert insight into the science behind the eclipse. Attendees will participate in hands-on activities and view the event through telescopes equipped with solar filters. This event is free and does not require preregistration.

“It’s really exciting for me to just get people excited about science, and get people excited about astronomy specifically,” said WVU Planetarium teaching assistant and Ph.D. physics and astronomy student Susie Paine.

Safety is vital during the eclipse, said Paine and Taylor. Viewing the sun without proper eye protection can cause damage to the retina within seconds. Solar viewing glasses are made specifically for viewing the sun safely and cannot be substituted with sunglasses. If there are any scratches, tears or other damage to your eclipse glasses, they should not be used. To prevent eye strain, Taylor advises the sun only be viewed through eclipse glasses for 5-minute increments before giving your eyes a break.

Paine recommends the use of a pinhole projector for younger children, a tool that can be made at home using paper and a pencil. The projector can be used to indirectly but clearly view the eclipse using shadows, leaving no risk of eye damage. This can be a safer option for young children who may not keep their eclipse glasses on while watching the solar event. A tutorial for a pinhole projector can be found on the WVU Extension YouTube page.

A solar eclipse is an experience that confounds not only humans but also the life around us. During an eclipse, some animals can become disoriented and exhibit irregular behaviors, and as discovered during the 2017 solar eclipse, rates of photosynthesis and water loss in plants decrease.

“For me, it’s kind of a humbling experience. You will see for yourself the mighty power of the sun blocked by the moon,” said Taylor. “It’s a reminder that we do live in a solar system and a universe — we’re just a small part of that.”

If the weather is overcast or rainy on Monday, some of the eclipse may be visible between clouds. The WVU Planetarium’s event may be moved to the planetarium where educational activities and official NASA live streams of the eclipse will be available.

“To kids, especially, this is a huge moment. If you have kids, make sure they know this is important,” said Paine. “Take a break from whatever you have going on and take a minute to connect with the universe.”

Visit planetarium.wvu.edu for more information.

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