So much of our life, and in fact, everything in our little corner of the known universe, revolves around the sun. We want to find our place in the sun, soak up the sun, and we count on it as a constant. Sure as the sun rises in the east, we’re sun-centric here, at least since fellow Polish countryman Nicolaus Copernicus came out against the popular ‘alternative facts’ of the day and established that in fact, we revolve around the sun, not vice-versa. So what happens, then, when our much loved celestial body suddenly goes dark in the middle of the day?
We’re about to find out.
On August 21, 2017, the Chicago area will experience a solar eclipse. The moon will pass between the Earth and the Sun, casting a giant shadow over us that will plunge us into near darkness. It’s an important and rare event. We’ve seen some partial solar eclipses more recently, but this total eclipse will mark the closest Chicago has come to the “path of totality” – the path the moon’s shadow, or umbra, traces along the Earth’s surface, since 1806. Here in Chicago, we should expect 90% of the sun to be covered, resulting in what the planetarium terms “a spectacular light.”
Just five hours south, though, the sun will be completely obscured. This is because Carbondale, IL, home to the Salukis and Southern Illinois University, is dead center in the path of totality, and will experience full darkness and the eclipse’s greatest duration. At approximately 1:21 PM CDT (with partial phases of the eclipse spanning from 11:52 am to 2:47 pm), Carbondale will be plunged into darkness for about 3 minutes (2 minutes, 40.2 seconds to be precise). Amazingly enough, just seven years later, in 2024, Carbondale will again be the center of the path of totality for a full solar eclipse. If that’s not close enough, in 2099, the center of the path of totality will hit Chicago itself.
All of this is causing a good amount of hype, as it should. This marks a rare occasion when a total solar eclipse will be viewable in totality near a very large population of people. 12 million people are estimated to be in the path of totality. Hotels, campgrounds and parks are already booked for this year’s eclipse, with Carbondale expecting at least 50,000 visitors and the Adler expecting almost 10,000 guests to flood the building and lawns to get a glimpse.
This momentous occasion is the focus of a new exhibit at the planetarium, Chasing Eclipses. The temporary exhibit opened on March 25th and will be in place until January 8th of 2018, and aims to celebrate this celestial oddity as well as educate on it. Visitors walk in to a map of the phases of an eclipse and are treated to all sorts of artifacts that tell tales from previous eclipses. One of the most incredible finds, and most interesting stories, revolves around a map meant to advertise the expected path of a different total solar eclipse in London, England all the way back in 1717. The pages were penned by none other than Edmond Halley, the famous British astronomer for whom Halley’s comet is named. Amazingly, he predicted the path of totality within 20 miles, and the second page Adler has on hand shows the surprisingly small change in path.
Chasing Eclipses has quite a few incredibly interesting and quite old artifacts to accompany all the usual amazing interactive displays with video, pictures and facts. It goes back all the way to 1540 and paper instruments called volvelles used to calculate the eclipse, but by the time you walk out of the exhibit, you’ll have enough information to know how to capture the August eclipse on your own, safely (Adler is handing out safety glasses to this end, and you should ABSOLUTELY wear them if you’re planning on viewing the eclipse in the wild). You’ll learn how eclipses are photographed and videoed, how to track the shadows as they fall during each phase, and even be able to experience a simulation of the main event without ever leaving the exhibit.
If you want to get in on all the eclipse excitement, and really become an eclipse chaser, the absolute best place to start is the Adler Planetarium. You’ll get a great foundation of knowledge and information to be able to really appreciate the wonder that is about to occur. Then, you can plan where you’ll celebrate the celestial event of the decade. Adler is planning a huge event that you’ll be able to attend (details here), and there are even still tickets to the brave souls who want to venture out to Carbondale to view the eclipse from the Salukis stadium. Wherever you go, remember to protect your eyes and enjoy the wonders of space thoroughly.
The Adler Planetarium is located on Museum Campus, at 1300 South Lake Shore Drive, and entry to Chasing Eclipses is included with regular admission.