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Q&A: Start planning for 2017 total solar eclipse

Bernard “Bernie” Bates, astronomy professor, in the observatory on Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound on July 29, 2015.
Bernard “Bernie” Bates, astronomy professor, in the observatory on Thompson Hall at the University of Puget Sound on July 29, 2015. Staff photographer

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Aug. 21, 2017, you will want to look up.

That’s when the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in almost a century will move across the United States.

Day will turn to night. The stars will come out. Birds will roost after an oddly short day.

And then, in less than three minutes, the sun will return.

In Washington state that day, the moon will block most of the sun. The area of totality — a 100-mile-wide band that will be in the complete shadow of the moon — will sweep across Oregon on its way to South Carolina and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Eclipse watchers agree: The area of totality is where you want to be. Otherwise, all you’ll see is a pedestrian partial eclipse.

Total solar eclipses appear somewhere on Earth every 18 months to two years. But unless you’re willing to travel, you might never see one. The last total solar eclipse in the continental United States was right here in the Northwest in February 1979.

The 2017 eclipse may seem a long way off, but it might be the most spectacular celestial event of your life. And people are already making plans.

University of Puget Sound astronomy professor Bernard Bates is one of them. He teaches courses on Mars and on SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence).

The News Tribune spoke with Bates about what happens during an eclipse, where the prime viewing locations will be and how to get ready.

Q: Have you seen a total solar eclipse?

A: Yes, two. One on the East Coast and then I was here for the 1979 eclipse.

Q: What happens to create an eclipse, and why don’t they happen more often?

A: The Earth orbits the sun, and the moon is orbiting the Earth. The moon’s orbit is slightly tipped at about five degrees with respect to the Earth’s orbit.

Every time the moon orbits the Earth you’d expect to have a solar eclipse when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun. And (you would expect) a lunar eclipse when it goes behind the Earth, one each a month.

But because of that five-degree tip, the small size of the moon and the large distance between the Earth and the moon, the shadow usually misses.

Q: What’s significant about the 2017 eclipse?

A: The fact that it’s cutting across the entire country, that it’s happening during a decent time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and that everyone has a decent chance of seeing it.

Q: Where will be the best place to see this eclipse in the Northwest?

A: Between Portland and Eugene. And on the coast around Lincoln City, Oregon.

Q: And what about Tacoma and Olympia? What will it be like in those areas?

A: Ninty-three percent of the sun will be covered. It will be a bright crescent. It’ll be dark here.

Q: For those of us who have never seen a total solar eclipse, describe what it will be like in the totality region.

A: It gets really dark in the middle of the day. Birds think it’s nighttime. If you’re somewhere where you can see a great distance, you can tell you’re in a circular region of darkness because the horizon is glowing around you.

You can see stars next to the sun. And the corona of the sun. Depending on how active the sun is, (the corona) can be really large. The sun has an outer atmosphere, but it’s not very bright. But once the moon is there, you can see it.

Q: Will the sun be “active” in 2017?

A: We’re on the downside of the last active solar period. It’s every 11 to 12 years. We don’t understand why. It’s actually a 22-year period, because when it comes back, its magnetic field is upside down.

Q: I’m getting the idea there’s a lot we don’t know about the sun.

A: A lot. It’s a really active object. Compared to some stars, it’s pretty well behaved. But even it throws tantrums.

Solar physics is hard to do because the sun is so bright we have a difficult time getting information. We have lots of satellites just watching it.

Solar flares are bad when they hit us. Satellites can be damaged. The power grid can be affected.

In 1859, there was the Carrington Event. We can tell, (based on) what happened to the primitive telegraph system, that if we had a Carrington Event now, it would take everything down. The Internet could go down for a month and a half. The satellites we depend on could just go away.

Q: So, if you’re in Washington, you won’t be able to see stars and the sun’s corona during the eclipse?

A: No, because that crescent will be really bright. The difference between a total and partial eclipse is so vast it’s worth the trip to see it — because you won’t forget it.

Q: Where will you be?

A: I like the coast, but living here I know that on the other side of the mountains in Oregon you have a much better chance of clear weather. So being inland is a better idea. On the coast, you always have a chance of something rolling in.

There’s a town, Madras, Oregon, which is right on the center line. Now is the time to get your reservations.

Q: The one thing every kid, or adult, who experiences an eclipse is told: Don’t stare at the sun.

A: You never want to look at the sun. Even when the sun is a thin sliver. Your retina doesn’t feel pain. You won’t feel the damage being done, and it’ll happen quickly. You’ll realize after the fact.

They will be selling these mylar glasses. The other way is to make a pinhole in a piece of cardboard and use it to project the sun’s image and watch the stages as it nears totality. Once it’s in totality you can look at it.

Q: And that’s only in the area of totality in Oregon. In Washington, there’s no looking at it with the naked eye at any point on Aug. 21, 2017?

A: That’s right. It’s your eyes. It’s not worth it. People say, “But I look at the sun all the time.” But because it’s so bright, your brain doesn’t allow you to look at it longer than an instant.

Q: What did our ancestors think of solar eclipses?

A: It looked to them that the sun was being eaten. But it’s just not ancient people. A guy I knew in graduate school was in Laos during the Vietnam War. (During a solar eclipse) the Laotians discharged their weapons at the sun to scare away the dragon that was eating it.

Q: On the other hand, some ancient peoples, like the Maya, figured out what an eclipse was and when it would happen.

A: They figured it with a very mature understanding of positional astronomy. When you look at Stonehenge, you see the big monoliths. But there’s an earlier eclipse calculator. It’s not very impressive (in appearance).

That’s the nice thing about astronomy. Everything really is cyclic, and you can figure it out once you have enough records. You can roughly predict when eclipses are going to occur.

Q: What’s required for a good solar eclipse experience?

A: Listening to the reactions of other people. When people are exposed to something they’ve never seen before, this childlike giddiness comes across them. We’re all so jaded now.

Q: And to record it?

A: Put your phone away and just look at it. They’ll get nothing (if they try to photograph it with a camera phone). There will be more than enough (professional) photos that you can find after the fact.

Q: Recently, Pluto has been in the news with the flyby of the New Horizons probe. Will there be more data coming from that?

A: Yes. It couldn’t point its high-gain antenna back at Earth and take high resolution data. So it’s only returned 1 percent of compressed data. When you are 4 billion miles from the sun you have a bad Internet connection all the time.

Over the next year they are going to download all the compressed raw data. The images are going to get better and better.

Q: How has the New Horizon mission to Pluto expanded our knowledge of planetary science?

A: Now that New Horizon has flown by Pluto, we’ve done part one.

We’ve now taken photos of every major planet in the solar system and know a lot more about them. They’ve moved into planetary science as opposed to astronomy. Hard-core astronomists say astronomy is only studying stuff you can’t get to.

Now it’s time for part two. What is the science going to tell us about these places? And at the same time, we’ve been given these thousands of planets outside our solar system.

Q: You are referring to exoplanets — planets that orbit stars other than our own?

A: When I started here there were no planets known outside the solar system. Just recently they released (reports on) another thousand planets. Within the next two years they are going to find a true Earth Two. By 2020, they’re going to be able to tell you if there’s oxygen in the atmosphere on some of these (planets).

Questions about life outside the solar system — you can tell just by looking if there’s life on the planet. One thing life does is that it throws the atmosphere into a chemical disequilibrium. If you look at the Earth, you have methane and oxygen in the atmosphere at the same time. You can’t have them in the same atmosphere for any length of time because they want to react with each other.

Q: So your course on SETI is more than just watching “E.T.” and reruns of “Star Trek.”

A: We know what extraterrestrial is, but intelligence is a big problem. We don’t know what we mean by that. Instead of looking for microbes (like on Mars) they want to go for the brass ring: intelligent beings — basically find us.

Q: Until they develop these atmospheric detecting capabilities, isn’t listening for distant radio signals the only way to detect life beyond our solar system?

A: Yes. Anyone looking at TV and FM radio frequencies coming from Earth could tell there’s something weird here. Nature doesn’t do channels — one frequency with nothing next to it and then another frequency. That’s what SETI is trying to do — look for that.

But, is there some other way intelligence might make itself known? Searching like that, we wouldn’t have found a pre-1945 Earth. (AM radio signals don’t travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere.)

Q: Closer to home, our neighboring planet Mars still gets the lion’s share of interest from us earthlings. What’s new with it?

A: Mars is really complicated. Teaching a course on Mars now is like teaching a course on Earth. There’s a lot going on. The next big thing is trying to get samples back from Mars, but that won’t happen in the next period.

Q: Why do we have these launch windows and what’s coming up for the next one?

A: Every 26 months (Mars and Earth) are aligned so it’s easy (to make the shortest trip possible). Everyone who is trying to go to Mars will go in November 2016. A U.S. geophysics probe leaves. The Chinese are going to try.

Q: There’s a big movie, “The Martian,” coming out in fall with Matt Damon, about the attempt to rescue an astronaut on Mars. What’s the value of sending humans to Mars?

A: We can’t claim it as a state because we have international laws against that. It’s expensive because you want to get them back alive.

We have the technology. But it’s the biology and psychology that’s unknown. Just the radiation exposure could fry the neurons in an astronaut’s head. And you have to stay either two weeks or two years (because of orbital alignments.) Spending $50 (billion) to $500 billion to spend two weeks there, you can’t do anything.

ONLINE ECLIPSE INFORMATION

NASA: eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov.

Eclipse 2017: eclipse2017.org.

Great American Eclipse: greatamericaneclipse.com.

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