Solar eclipse draws Connecticut astronomy buffs south, new fans outdoors

For a couple of minutes on Monday afternoon, the lights will dim in southeastern Connecticut.

It won't be your mind playing tricks on you: The moon will be passing directly in front of the sun, creating the first total solar eclipse to cross coast-to-coast over the United States in 99 years and plunging a 70-mile-wide strip of the country into darkness.

The eclipse has captured the imagination of those planning to visit the so-called "path of totality," where observers will get to see the moon completely cover the sun, and of local astronomy buffs willing to stay at home to see a partial eclipse.

The staff at Mystic Seaport started planning for the eclipse several months ago, when it became clear how much interest it was drawing from astronomy buffs and first-time eclipse watchers alike. The Seaport's programming started Friday, with an eclipse-themed program at its Treworgy Planetarium.

“We decided to kind of turn it into a full-day experience,” Brian Koehler, the planetarium's supervisor, said Thursday.

After he gave that presentation, planetarium lecturer Larry Kroze headed to Casper, Wyo., smack dab in the path of totality. There he'll film a video of the sky that — if the overload of visitors doesn't slow the internet connection to the Seaport — will be live-streamed onto the dome of the planetarium in Mystic.

"I've heard people say they can see stars during the day on a solar eclipse," Koehler said.

Traveling south for a good view

More than 1,300 miles to the southeast, and almost two hours after Kroze views the total eclipse, Connecticut College professor and physicist Leslie Brown will be watching it from Nashville, Tenn.

Brown, who oversees the two observatories on the college's campus and periodically sends emails to her colleagues explaining upcoming astronomical phenomena, said solar eclipses are not directly in her field of study.

That doesn't make the draw of experiencing totality any less strong.

"I'm interested just because it’s a beautiful event in nature," she said. "I decided this year it's on my bucket list."

A NASA website lists official "totality" viewing locations around the country, Nashville included. There, Brown said, she will see about 1 minute and 50 seconds of total darkness during which the moon will block the sun.

She will join hordes of eclipse chasers who have had plans set for months or years.

The Day's Melissa Johnson also will be among those traveling to Nashville for the eclipse. She wrote a monthly astronomy column, called Local Universe, regularly for The Day from 2009 to 2016, and she'll be writing a special column about the experience; it will run in the Daybreak section on Saturday, Aug. 26.

"It's a big trip for two minutes," Brown said. In that two minutes, though, "I'm likely to be really excited, and just very focused on trying to see things."

The covered sun will cast new, strange shadows on the earth. The birds will go quiet, and the stars will come out. Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, will appear in the sky near the sun.

Beyond that, Brown doesn't know what totality will be like. Some have called it a spiritual experience, she said.

"I'm going to be open to whatever happens," she said.

Hundreds more miles east and south, Andy Pigg will be sitting in a friend's front yard in Charleston, S.C.

An amateur photographer and astronomer who lives in Ledyard, Pigg said he'll spend most of the cost of his trip on plane tickets into the path of totality, which have dramatically risen in price during the week of the eclipse.

Lodging is all settled, though.

"The great thing about being in the Navy is I have friends all over the coast," he said. "I always have a couch to crash on."

Pigg became interested in night photography three years ago, he said, and has fielded more and more questions about his hobby in recent months because of the eclipse.

"The eclipse has a funny way of bringing the astronomer out in everybody," he said.

Glasses still needed, even in a partial eclipse 

In Connecticut, where the moon will cover only about 70 percent of the sun at the 2:45 p.m. peak, Koehler said the effect will be more like watching a cloud pass overhead on a sunny day.

"You sort of get that feeling like 'oh, everything just got darker,'" he said. "It's going to significantly change how bright the day is."

Local libraries, including the Groton Public Library, have gotten in on the action, giving out donated American Astronomical Society-approved glasses that will allow people to safely look at the eclipse.

Looking directly at the sun, even at the eclipse's peak in Connecticut, can cause eye damage unless eclipse watchers use glasses with special lenses that block the sun's rays.

The glasses, and lenses to attach to cameras or binoculars, can be found at several local approved retailers. Best Buy sells a $10 version of the glasses or pricier binoculars and camera lenses. Walmart stores were carrying a $1 version of the glasses — the Waterford store featured a small display near the entrance to the garden center. Lowe's hardware stores also are approved vendors, though glasses at the Waterford branch of that store were sold out late last week.

Groton's library gave away hundreds of free glasses, and will distribute the ones they have left starting at 12:30 p.m. on Monday, at the start of the eclipse program there.

Amy Stone, a member of the Thames Amateur Astronomical Society, will be at the library to answer questions about the eclipse and give people up-close peeks at the sun flares and spots that might be visible with a solar telescope.

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy's library and science department also will host a public eclipse-watching event. It will have a limited number of eclipse-watching glasses and telescopes set up in front of Waesche Hall starting about 1:30 p.m.

If the eclipse makes would-be astronomers eager to start preparing for the next one, New England residents are in luck.

In April 2024, another solar eclipse will have a path of totality that goes from Mexico through Texas and the Midwest and into Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.

But no matter where people find themselves on Monday, Brown encouraged anyone curious about the ways of the universe to step outside with proper eye protection and look around.

"Just put your lounge chair outside, and make sure you've got your glasses," she said. "Enjoy sitting in the sunshine."

 m.shanahan@theday.com

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