Monday, July 05, 2010

Chasing eclipses

Next Sunday the long thin cone of the Moon's shadow, like the tip of a rapier, will brush the Earth's cheek. If it were truly a blade, rather than a cone of darkness, it would cut a thin gash across the South Pacific, thousands of miles long and about 200 kilometers wide. The shadow will first touch the sea near the International Date Line, then rush across the open ocean to the southern tip of South America. If you are anywhere in that path, you will experience one of nature's most spectacular shows -- a total eclipse of the Sun.

Unfortunately, there are not many places to stand, at least not on dry land; only a couple of tiny islands are available for eclipse chasers. But by the rarest of chances, Easter Island happens to lie smack in the path, and you can bet that the competition will be fierce to get the most dramatic photograph of the eclipsed Sun with one of the mysterious Easter Island statues -- the moai -- in the foreground. Even now the most fanatical photographers will be staking out their territory. I can imagine that some uncomfortable scenes will ensue as shutterbugs seek to defend their positions from late-coming interlopers.

The situation will be ideal for photography, with the Sun at mid-eclipse 40 degrees above the north-northwest horizon, among what we in the north would call the brilliant stars of winter.

So who will take the prize? Who will have their photo appear as the APOD, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. We'll all be waiting to see.

Meanwhile, year by year, the eclipse Americans have been waiting a lifetime for creeps closer. On August 21, 2017, the Moon's full shadow -- that black dot of totality -- will sweep across the central United States from west to east, passing just to the north of my old hometown of Chattanooga. It will also pass over the site of the famous New Madrid geological fault in eastern Missouri. So many people will move from north and south into the shadow band, with their automobiles and RVs, that the weight may trigger an earthquake as great as the ones that shook the heartland in 1811-12. (Just kidding.)

Tom, is it too early to start planning? Where along the path of that moving dot is there a lovely place to stay, with a reasonable promise of cloudless sky? Can we take over an entire inn and get all the family there?