Denton gets ready to go eclipse crazy (but safely)
Not much can bring Americans together these days, but Monday's solar eclipse has the country united in a singular excitement.
And with good reason: This will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the contiguous United States in 38 years, according to NASA.
In a solar eclipse, the moon passes between the sun and our viewpoint on Earth, said Preston Starr, the superintendent of the University of North Texas Observatory. The observatory will be open for eclipse watchers from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Monday for just $3 a person.
The first 200 visitors will get a pair of eclipse-viewing glasses to boot. That way, they can gaze at the eclipse with their almost-naked eye, and then head into the observatory and peek through several special telescopes for a closer look.
So what exactly is happening on Monday? Starr explained that the sun, huge as it is, is 400 times farther from the Earth than the moon is. That distance gives the moon and sun the same apparent size.
"So when the moon crosses that path, it looks like it's covering the sun, as if they were the same size," he said.
"It's fairly rare for this to happen where it can be seen," Starr said. "These paths cross about twice a year, but it's often in a place where we can't see it, believe it or not. Like in Antarctica."
"Or the middle of the ocean," said UNT Planetarium manager Ryan Bennett.
Starr said North Texans won't get to see a total eclipse, but Denton skygazers will see the sun eclipsed a little more than 75 percent. Salem, Oregon; Casper, Wyoming, and Nashville, Tennessee, are among the hot spots for seeing the moon blot out the sun.
"This will be different than a total eclipse," said Ron DiIulio, director of the UNT Planetarium and Astronomy Laboratories. "The sky and everything around you will look blue. Things will start to look weird. That will start at about 10 a.m."
Bennett said the observatory will have several telescopes aimed at the eclipse, and visitors will be able to look through them and take in informal explanations by the planetarium staff. Starr said the observatory will have a special hydrogen-alpha telescope set up that gives a dramatic view of the disappearing sun.
"The hydrogen-alpha telescope takes out some of the light, and you can see more of the surface of the sun," Starr said. "The other really neat thing it does is that, during an eclipse like this, it lets you see the mountains and craters on the moon."
The hydrogen-alpha telescope will project an image of the sun and the moon on a big screen at the observatory.
"It's really nice to have the screen, because you can take really good pictures of it with your phone," Starr said. "If you try to take a photo of the eclipse with just your phone, you're not going to get much. You can't get a very close look at it with a phone."
Starr said he's already notified local law enforcement about potential traffic around the Rafes Urban Astronomy Center, located at 2350 Tom Cole Road.
"We had about 1,000 people out for the lunar eclipse," Starr said. "We told the police the traffic was going to be heavy, but I don't think they believed us at first."
Why is it bad to look directly at the sun during a solar eclipse?
Normally, the pupil constricts to protect your eye from damage caused by the ultraviolet light from the sun. During an eclipse, the ultraviolet light is still powerful, but more comfortable to look at.
The inside of the eye has no pain sensors, and the UV light can actually burn the retina, scorching the rods and cones in the eye, and cause blindness without ever causing pain.
What if I don't have those nifty glasses?
"Find a tree and look underneath it," Starr said. "You'll start to see thousands of little crescents on the ground. You're seeing the projection of the image of the eclipse through the tiny holes in the leaves. Like a pinhole camera." Or learn how to make your own pinhole projection.
How can I tell if my eclipse-viewing glasses are the right ones?
Look for "NASA ISO 12312-2" on the glasses. For more information, visit NASA's safety page.
How did ancient humans deal with solar eclipses?
"If you look at Chinese flags and things, you will see a dragon," DiUlio said. "That's directly related to solar eclipses. Scientists could lose their jobs -- and their lives -- if they failed to predict these things.
"In ancient times, the Chinese believed that a dragon was eating the sun during an eclipse. They went out, and crashed gongs and cymbals and made noise. When the sun returned, they believed they scared the dragon away and saved the sun."
Today, this is re-enacted when puppeteers perform with illuminated dragons that "chase" a lighted orb.
WHERE TO WATCH MONDAY IN DENTON
At UNT's observatory
11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. -- Solar Eclipse Watch at Rafes Urban Astronomy Center, 2350 Tom Cole Road in Denton.
First 200 visitors get a free pair of eclipse-viewing glasses. $3 per person at the gate. Cash or check only. No advance tickets are available.
At the libraries
Solar Eclipse Viewing Parties starting at noon at North Branch Library, 3020 Locust St., and at 12:30 p.m. at South Branch Library, 3228 Teasley Lane. Watch the Great American Eclipse at 1 p.m. with 75 percent coverage in Texas.
Bring lawn chairs and umbrellas and find a viewing spot. Limited quantities of free safe-viewing glasses available. Call 940-349- 8752 or visit library.cityofdenton.com.
At Ray Roberts Lake
11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. -- Solar eclipse viewing at the Isle du Bois Unit of Ray Roberts Lake State Park, on FM455, 10 miles east of I-35. View the partial eclipse with special solar glasses and through a telescope with a solar filter. Meet at Pavilion 1 at the Day Use Area. $7 entrance fee for ages 13 and older. Call 940-686- 2148.
Nerd alert: Get ready for your own viewing
1. The sun will put a ring on it: In the last few seconds before the eclipse, sunlight streaming through the Moon's valleys creates a bright flash of light on the side of the moon known as the "diamond ring effect."
2. Corona isn't just a drink: That glowing light halo around the dark solar eclipse has a name -- it's the "corona," described by NASA as "the sun's tenuous atmosphere."
3. The 7-year itch is real: If you miss this eclipse, you'll have to wait until April 8, 2024 for the next one. It will carve a path from Maine to Texas. The 2017 eclipse will run from South Carolina to Oregon.
4. Our planets go the distance: The Earth, Moon, and Sun are currently perfect distances from each other, meaning we can see the corona during this eclipse. Millions of years ago, it was blocked. And millions of years in the future, total eclipses won't be possible because the Moon will appear smaller than the sun.
5. 'Greece' is the word: The earliest predicted solar eclipse was in Ancient Greece in 585 BC. It was seen as an omen -- one that caused a long-standing battle between the Medes and the Lydians to finally end.
Check out NASA's video.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.
FEATURE IMAGE: In this photo taken by UNT Observatory Superintendent Preston Starr, a powerful hydrogen-alpha telescope makes it appear that a commercial jet has passed the moon and is headed for the sun. Starr said the UNT Observatory will have the same telescope projecting an image of the solar eclipse on a large screen. The Observatory will be open for eclipse watchers from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 21. Patrons pay $3 to peer through several telescopes and hear explanations of the event. North Texans won't witness a total solar eclipse, but it will come pretty close.