An event for the ages

An event for the ages

By Bob Wieland

It won’t be just the stars at night that are big and bright on April 8. If it is not cloudy, stars will be visible at midday as the shadow of a total solar eclipse sweeps across Texas. 

The umbra is 120 miles wide and will be moving at 2,000 miles per hour, entering the state between Del Rio and Eagle Pass on the Mexican border and then moving to the northeast, crossing Collin County until exiting the U.S. at Maine.

The most recent total eclipse for the area occurred July 29, 1878, and the next total eclipse for Collin County won’t occur until 2317. 

So this is truly an event for the ages with 12 million Texans among the 31 million Americans in the path of totality. 

Texas is a prime spot to see the eclipse, with the longest duration of totality, about four minutes, and the statistical best chance for good weather on the day of the event.

“Weather is every astronomer’s nemesis,” said amateur astronomer Armin Bernhardt of Wylie. “We’re praying for clear skies.” 

A retired bank vice president, Bernhardt is a NASA partner “eclipse ambassador.”

Opportunity of a Lifetime

“Eclipses have mesmerized and changed civilizations for centuries,” he said. “They have stopped people in their tracks.”

The awe they inspire is like seeing the Grand Canyon in person for the first time, he said. “What was it like compared to the pictures you have seen? There’s no comparison —the expanse is that massive.”

The impact of seeing a total eclipse is 10 times, maybe 100 times, that breathtaking, he said.

Even a small distance can make all the difference. Clouds won’t prevent skies from darkening, but there will be no chance to see the corona of the sun framing the orb of the moon.

“All of us in Farmersville, Princeton, Sachse, Wylie, Murphy, have a lot of opportunities for parks and open spaces,” he said. “But they’re going to be packed. Tens of thousands of people will be going somewhere, there will be traffic congestion. A lot of people think they’re going to get smart and going to Lake Lavon or Lake Ray Hubbard, but 25,000 other people will be thinking the same thing.”

Starting about 12:23 p.m., Monday, April 8, the moon will begin to cover the sun. Skies will darken until totality in our area from about 1:41 p.m. to approximately 1:45 p.m. The maximum will be during 1:43 p.m.

As the moon moves along, the sun will completely emerge about 3:03 p.m. 

Temperatures will drop 10 degrees; bees will return to their hives and bats will begin hunting.

A total eclipse is different from the annular eclipse we experienced last October when the moon was farther away from us and covered most of the sun except for the ring or halo around its edge, said the amateur astronomer 

“The total eclipse is a life-changing event,” he said. “It’s jaw-dropping, it will blow your hair back.”

Where to View

Several locations have scheduled viewing parties. 

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas has teamed with the Carnegie Institution for Science to provide more than 20 astronomers, food and live music.

The Dallas Arboretum and its partners will present a program featuring retired NASA astronaut Alvin Drew who flew on two Space Shuttle missions to the International Space Station.

Both events have charges for admission, but all residents in the path of totality have to do is “walk out on their porch and look up,” Bernhardt said.

Unlike the annular eclipse we saw in October, a total solar eclipse is about as bright as the full moon — and just as safe to look at during totality. 

But spectators should have proper, certified solar eclipse viewing glasses rated ISO 12312-2 to watch as the moon begins to obscure the sun and then reveals it again. He stressed that “sunglasses are not safe” to use.

Bernhardt also advises only experienced photographers to attempt making pictures of the event. The sun’s corona is relatively faint and requires over exposure to get it right. 

Eclipse photography also requires a proper solar filter on the telescope. In addition to photographing the sun and moon, Bernhardt captures pictures of people around him as they experience the event. “The experience is best shared with a group of people,” he said.

The filter, or solar eclipse viewing glasses, should never be placed between the eyes and the lens, whether it’s a telescope, binoculars or prescription eyeglasses, he said. The lens will focus the light onto the filter and possibly burn through it.

Another point to remember is to remove the glasses during the few minutes of totality. When the moon blocks the sun during a total eclipse, it is safe to take off the glasses or you won’t see anything at all.

“I’ve heard of people wearing the glasses during totality and missing the whole thing,” he said.

A Passion for the Sky

Astronomy has been Bernhardt’s hobby or passion since he was given a toy telescope when he was 10 years old.

Bernhardt now owns eight different telescopes, each serving a different purpose like a hunter with different guns for different game.

He delights in sharing his enthusiasm for astronomy, particularly eclipses, and wants to ensure a safe and thrilling experience when viewing the eclipse. Bernhardt also relishes the party atmosphere an eclipse can create and suggests playing appropriate music. 

Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was not about eclipses, but Bernhardt said it fit the ring around the moon formed by an annular eclipse.

Songs that have “eclipse” in the name include the song of that name from Pink Floyd’s album, “Dark Side of the Moon,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” by Jim Steinman, from “Faster Than the Speed of Night,” and “Eclipse” Pure Trance music by Solarstone.

Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” references the July 1972 solar eclipse viewed in Nova Scotia. But although an eclipse is literally a moon shadow, Cat Stevens’ 1971 hit “Moon Shadow” is not about a solar event. 

In addition to the blanketing darkness, the eclipse will create “shadow bands” seconds before totality and seconds after. They are faint wavy lines moving in parallel that can be seen on streets or light-colored buildings as the moon narrows light from the sun to a crescent slit. They move first in one direction and then the other.

The pulsing is caused by atmospheric turbulence, the same interference that makes stars appear to twinkle. 

Bernhardt stresses there will not be another total solar eclipse in the DFW area for the rest of the century. 

“In fact, the next total solar eclipse in the U.S. will be very short in a small section of North Dakota in 20 years.”

On average, any specific location on earth only has a total solar eclipse once every 375 years, he said. The exception is Carbondale, Illinois. It was in the path of the total solar eclipse back in 2017 and it will be in the path again for 2024.

“This is a beautiful event, this is a human event, this is something you will never forget,” Bernhardt said.