We are starving. Every day. We are starving for connections. Connections with people and places. Ever since we left the comforting protection of caves and wandered out into the steppe, built tents with leaves and sticks and gazed at the night sky, we wondered if the twinkling lights are other worlds and if we will ever get there. Thousands of years ago we already used the stars and constellations to help guide us through the year and serve as a chronometer for planting and harvesting. But once in a while the sky suddenly turned dark during bright daylight, and we were deeply frightened as our source of warmth and energy disappeared. Little did we know, it wasn’t gods telling us something, but simple orbital mechanics.
On assignment for Space Racers, I had the fortune to travel to Spray, Oregon for the 2017 total solar eclipse. As I strive to be a good researcher and to be prepared for this rare cosmic event, I asked my friends in Germany about their experience from the 1999 total eclipse, which was part of the same Saros cycle as the one of 2017, which repeats with the unwavering reliability every 18 years (6,585.3 days): “We had epic traffic jams! We got onto the Autobahn in Singen, 210 kilometers away from Karlsruhe (the path of totality) and traffic was stop-and-go at 6 a.m. in the morning. We never made it!” Granted, Oregon is not Germany and the interstate surely isn’t the autobahn, but the laws of fluid dynamics apply to the flow of traffic whether you are driving a car on I-84 or the A-81. So I figured I would need to get to my destination to Spray, Oregon, a little speck in the middle of the high desert in Oregon, the day before, with my fancy Heimplanet tent in tow.
Who hasn’t heard of “Made in Germany” and its marvelous engineering? Whether it’s the automobile manufacturers, screws, mechanical power transmission, pneumatics etc. No wonder, I had an instant connection with Heimplanet and their marvelous tents! (just air inside the struts, not tent poles) But, had I put equal time into reading the manual and watching online videos than I did into planetary motions, nucleosynthesis, umbral speed, I would have been rewarded with setting up a tent with the ease of a gymnast on a high beam. But to the contrary, I looked like an elephant on a skateboard, bending down to put on socks, on a serpentine street going downhill, while blowing up the tents struts with his trunk. Btw, the air on our planet that I blew into the tent is made from 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. Nitrogen and oxygen as well as helium, are created through a process known as the CNO cycle in the fusion process inside a star.
The Sun, our parent star, is roughly 150 million kilometers (1 Astronomical Unit) away and comprises 99.99% of the matter in our solar system. The Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun but also about 400 times farther away from it, giving this ratio and the Earth’s position in its orbit a cosmic lottery win. Once every month the Moon moves between the Sun. However, once every 18 months it moves exactly between them in a straight line and allows for a cosmic display that has no match in our Solar System. Depending on where you stand in the path of totality, where the Moon covers the Sun completely, you will get to experience an awe-inspiring total solar eclipse that can last up to 8 minutes. For the 2017 Saros cycle the maximum was 2 minutes and 40 seconds and Spray enjoyed 1 minute and 51 seconds of totality.
The difference between a 99% total eclipse and 100% you ask? It is like the difference between seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon and being at the Grand Canyon with 50 of your best friends, your family, with fireworks lasting for hours, people hootin’ and hollerin’ and swirling around in ecstatic dance moves (Chinese tradition has it that pots need to be drummed to chase away a dog eating up the sun during an eclipse). It is just incomparable – as a witness of the 78% totality in Europe from March 2015, I have a baseline against which to compare.
Total eclipse with the Sun's corona (Kelly McCrillis for Space Racers)
Once the umbral shadow had enveloped my location completely, it looked like an approaching massive thunderstorm, my left brain was incapable of communicating with my right brain. Where just a moment ago a crescent Sun stood (observed with proper solar eclipse glasses), there was a ghostly black hole in the sky, surrounded by the corona, which spews hot ionized gas into space. An absolutely magnificent display by our natural nuclear power plant. People were cheering, jumping, dancing, or just silent in awe. I noticed that experienced eclipsophiles stood quietly soaking up the experience. It was the shortest and most exciting 1 minute and 51 seconds in my life (An apology to my first girlfriend ever, here). Einstein was right, when you spend an hour with a pretty girl for tea it feels like seconds and when you pursue menial bureaucratic work at the patent office a minute feels like a day. Time is relative.
But what to do with this amazing experience? First, look where the next total eclipse is (July 2nd, 2019 in South America), research a place with low probability of cloud cover for that time of year, find a nice spot in the middle of nowhere, book a flight, and make sure you watch an instructional video of setting up your Heimplanet Mistral tent this time.
Eclipse shadow approaching totality through crackers
Our home planet is not in a unique location in the cosmos, our view is isotropic, but our planet exists in its form with its inhabitants at a unique time. Our Sun, a class G2 star, is approximately at its half-way point in its 10 billion year lifetime given its mass and process of nuclear fusion. Our Moon, moving away from Earth at about an inch a year, will be in an enviable position to offer total eclipses for another 600 million years, after which it is too far away to cover the Sun’s disc completely. That is roughly 400 million total solar eclipses yet to come.
The bottom line: we need to treasure nature and preserve our home planet for future generations, so we can continue to interact with each other and preserve the only place in the Universe, as far as we know, to experience this type of cosmic connection.
Partial eclipse post-totality through a Solar Telescope