College of LAS « Illinois

Illinois counts down to the total solar eclipse

Astronomer: ‘It grabs you around the heart’

This image of a total solar eclipse was taken on September 3, 2016, in Indonesia.  Copyright 2016 Constantinos Emmanoulidis, Miloslav Druckmüller.
This image of a total solar eclipse was taken on September 3, 2016, in Indonesia. Copyright 2016 Constantinos Emmanoulidis, Miloslav Druckmüller. /Eclipse/Ecl2016i/Tidore/0-info.htm
The last time the state of Illinois had a total solar eclipse the University of Illinois was a mere two years old. It’s been 148 years since the state has witnessed the moon completely block out the sun in the sky.

But now a total solar eclipse will occur in southern Illinois at around 1:20 p.m. on Monday, August 21.

“It just grabs you around the heart,” said Leslie Looney, professor of astronomy. “It’s the darkness, it’s the drama, it’s this beautiful thing, and you say, ‘I get this. I see why people spend thousands to travel and see eclipses.’”

While eclipses of this variety happen every 18 months, there are only small paths where the moon completely aligns with the sun in the sky, blocking its light—called totality.  Everyone in the United States will be able to see a partial eclipse, with only certain places reaching totality.

In Champaign, roughly 195 miles north by car from what's considered the best area to view the event, the solar eclipse will reach about 93 percent totality.

“We live in a special place. This may not happen on many other planets in the galaxy,” Looney said. “We have a weird case where our moon, even though it’s diameter is 400 times smaller than the sun, is 400 times closer to the Earth. So they’re the same exact size in the sky.”

Looney, with help from the LAS Alumni Association and LAS Office of Communications and Marketing, organized an eclipse viewing for alumni and friends of the University. Six busloads, or around 500 people, will travel down to Goreville, Illinois, to witness the eclipse alongside astronomy faculty.

The event almost immediately sold out, and registration is closed. However, there will be a public event that requires no registration taking place in one of Goreville public parks. Goreville will be one of the best places to view the eclipse in the nation. It is the closest village to the longest duration point, so it has totality for 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

Looney witnessed his first total solar eclipse in Munich, Germany, in 1999, and the experience is partly why he decided to organize this year’s eclipse viewing.

“I was an astronomer living there and doing research,” Looney recalled. “(At first) I said, ‘Oh what’s the big deal, it’s dark, it’s not that cool.’ But then I saw it, and I was like, ‘Wow.’”

Looney recalled the approaching darkness and temperature drop that happens as the moon moves directly in front of the sun.

“It gets eerie, it gets spooky. Birds go quiet, all the animals think it’s nighttime — and people freak out. They scream they shout, they clap, they get super excited,” he said.

Though this occurrence lasts only about two minutes, Looney called it magical.

“When totality really happens and it’s dark, the sun has this beautiful corona around it, which is a million degree temperature gas,” Looney said. “You can’t see it even though it’s there all the time because the sun is really bright. Suddenly you see it and it’s gorgeous. There are these cotton candy streams coming out.”

As Looney prepared to view the eclipse in Munich, he was afraid he would miss out. There were thunderstorms at the time, which can affect the viewing. However, just before the eclipse took place, the clouds cleared.

Unfortunately, clouds are a possibility in southern Illinois, too. Goreville has about a 40 percent chance of overcast weather in August.

“If you have clouds, you can miss a lot of the cool parts of the eclipse,” Looney said. “And that’s why people are very upset by clouds.”

Looney and other astronomy faculty and staff have been visiting local schools and other venues to educate the public about the science behind eclipses, as well as how to stay safe.

“You cannot look at the sun and you cannot stare at the sun, whether it’s eclipsing or not,” Looney said. “And don’t look at the sun with sunglasses. You need special eclipse glasses. They cost a few bucks a piece and are needed even for the partial eclipse.”

In 1994, an annular eclipse—where the edge of the sun remains visible around the moon—took place in Illinois. However, due to misinformation, teachers covered their windows with cardboard thinking that students could go blind.

While it’s true that you can’t go blind unless you stare directly at the sun, it is still necessary to take certain precautions to properly view the eclipse. Eclipse glasses are an option, as well as creating a pinhole camera, which you can make by following these directions from the Department of Astronomy.

“I’m excited to share the experience with everyone, and I just hope that it’s clear,” Looney said. “I’m recommending to most school kids that they skip school with their parents and go south and see the eclipse, because it is something you want to see.”

Samantha Jones Toal

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