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What is a total solar eclipse?
Essentially, it's when the moon moves right in front of the sun, covering it completely for a very brief time. It darkens the whole sky, lets you look right at the sun (only when it's completely covered, though - you must use special solar viewing glasses (also known as "eclipse glasses") whenever the sun isn't completely eclipsed), and shows you the beautiful corona that surrounds the sun. Stars come out, the horizon glows with a 360-degree sunset, the temperature drops, and day turns into night. It's one of the most beautiful things you can ever see on earth.
Aren’t these common?
Well, one happens about every year or every other year, somewhere on earth. However, you must be situated in a very narrow strip of land (called the 'path of totality') if you want to see the total phase of the eclipse. Otherwise, all you see (with your eclipse glasses, of course!) is a pretty boring partial eclipse. And that strip of land is generally VERY far off the beaten path - like Mongolia, or the Sahara Desert, or the ocean somewhere. Very few people (as a percentage of the overall population) have ever seen a total solar eclipse.
Wasn't there just an eclipse of the sun in the USA not too many years ago?
The only total eclipses that have happened in the last 40 years in the US were in 1979 (in the northwest part of the country only) and 1991 (Hawaii only). Anything else you saw was only a partial (and there have been lots of these, like on Christmas Day 2000) or an annular eclipse (such as the one on May 10, 1994). Those are NOTHING compared to the amazing spectacle of of a total eclipse!
Where do I need to be to watch it?
For the 2017 eclipse, there is a strip of land about 70 miles wide or so (called the 'path of totality') that stretches from central Oregon through South Carolina. There are maps on www.eclipse2017.org that will show you exactly where you need to be, to be in the path of totality and therefore to see the total eclipse. Go to the site, and look at the maps there. That will tell you where you need to be.
When will it happen?
Monday, August 21, 2017. Clear your calendar.
What cities are in the path?
Lots. There is a complete listing on eclipse2017.org, but here are some of the bigger ones: Salem OR, Ontario OR, Rexburg ID, Grand Teton NP, Jackson Hole, Casper, North Platte, Lincoln (barely!), Leavenworth, the north side of Kansas City, Jefferson City, Columbia MO, the south side of St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Carbondale IL, Paducah KY, Bowling Green KY (barely!), Nashville, Cleveland TN (barely!), Smokey Mtns NP (only the southern part), Greenville, Columbia SC, and Charleston (barely!).
What cities are close, but not actually IN the path?
A better question. You will NOT see totality from any of these places, though they are very close to the path (Move into the path, and see totality!): Bend OR, Portland OR, Boise, Yellowstone NP, Cheyenne, Salt Lake, Denver, Ogallala, Omaha, Topeka, the south side of Kansas City, the north side of St. Louis, Louisville, Evansville IN, Murray KY, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Gatlinburg, Des Moines, Atlanta, Augusta GA, Charlotte, Spartanburg, Myrtle Beach. Any other big cities you might consider are not even close to the path!
How do you know that far in advance where the eclipse is going to be visible?
A lot of math. No, seriously, astronomers do know the equations that model the motions of the earth and moon extraordinarily accurately. Eclipse predicting has been around for thousands of years, but with the computers we have now, those predictions are actually very simple and VERY accurate. We can predict eclipses thousands of years from now with astounding accuracy - in fact, the only thing that prevents our long-range predictions from being perfect is that we don't know exactly how much longer the day will get as the earth's spin gradually slows down over thousands and thousands of years!
I’m close to the path of totality. Won’t I see anything cool where I am?
NO!!! You must be IN the path of totality, or all you'll see (with your solar viewers, of course) is a partial eclipse! Those are common, and are absolutely nothing to see, compared with the beauty of totality. If you get nothing from this at all, please get this: you MUST be IN the path of totality to experience the glory of a total eclipse! If where you are is not in the path of totality, then move yourself into it on eclipse day, and you will come away understanding what we were talking about! Miss, it, and you'll miss everything; you'll have no idea what all the people who WERE in the path are raving about the day after, and you will have missed it! The pictures you'll see in the newspaper and on TV will be NOTHING compared to the experience of having been there! Do NOT miss out!
I must drive a long way to be in the path. Why should I go to all that trouble?
If you go, you will understand. It is simply the most unbelievable thing you can ever experience in your life. If you stay home, then nothing we can say will convince you that you should've gone. Please trust someone who's seen eleven of these, on all continents - don't miss it!