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Dennis Mammana: Shining Light on the Great American Total Solar Eclipse

Prepare now for the great American solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Click to view larger
Prepare now for the great American solar eclipse on Aug. 21. ( illustration)

It’s been nearly four decades since sky watchers in any part of the continental United States have been treated to a total eclipse of the sun, but we’re about to experience this remarkable cosmic show in just one short month.

As a veteran of 16 total solar eclipses from six continents, I can say to you without any exaggeration that this is the most alien experience you can ever have on this planet — the sun goes out in the daytime, for heaven’s sake!

Over the next four weeks, I will make that case to you and offer tips on how best to experience this rare event.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon in its orbit passes directly between the Earth and the sun and blocks out a portion of our star from view. On Aug. 21, folks throughout North America will watch as the moon’s silhouette appears to take an increasingly larger bite out of the sun’s disk — a partial eclipse.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of protecting your vision. Looking at the sun without a proper solar filter, even for an instant, can cause permanent eye damage or blindness. Click here for proper solar filters, but be sure to order them soon because supplies may be dwindling.

Or, perhaps even more fun, check with your local planetarium, science museum or amateur astronomy club to see where they’ll be set up that day for free public viewing through properly filtered telescopes.

Click here to determine the times and other details about the eclipse in your area on a terrific interactive Google Earth map that allows you to zoom in and click on your exact location.

All the times presented there are in Universal Time, or UT, which is essentially the time in Greenwich, England, and you’ll need to convert to your own local time. Pacific Daylight Time, or PDT, is seven hours behind UT. So, a simple subtraction is all you’ll need to do.

Now, while these partial phases are certainly interesting and fun to watch, they are nothing — and I do mean nothing — compared with the exhilaration created by a total eclipse.

To experience this event in all its celestial glory, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience for most, you must view it from as close to the eclipse centerline as possible. The centerline is the middle of the narrow total eclipse path sweeping across the United States from Oregon through South Carolina. It is along this path that the moon’s umbral shadow will make landfall, and it is the only place where you can experience the stunning phenomenon we call “totality.”

If you plan to journey to the centerline, keep in mind that tens of millions of others from around the world will be doing the same. Lodging along the eclipse path is pretty well gone by now, and traffic that day may be quite congested in the most popular areas, so if you plan to travel to the path of totality, please do so early and be patient.

To learn more about this eclipse — where and how to view it safely, weather forecasts for that date, detailed tips on viewing and photographing the event — and get resources you can use and more, visit these popular websites:,, and

Next week, I’ll attempt the impossible: to portray for you in words the absolute majesty of totality. You won’t want to miss that.

In the meantime, please don’t delay making plans to get to the centerline on Aug. 21. I promise you’ll be richly rewarded!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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