Get ready for the Eclipse Across America

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Eclipse Across America is a four-part series premiering on CuriosityStream July 13. // Image courtesy of CuriosityStream

The Great American Eclipse is coming, and soon. Whether you read our website regularly or receive our magazine each month, you likely already know that we here at Astronomy are pretty excited — and we’re not the only ones.

On July 13, CuriosityStream will premiere its newest series: Eclipse Across America. This four-episode series is designed to get you ready for the biggest astronomical event to hit the United States in 99 years. It’s also the only eclipse documentary that will appear pre-eclipse to help you prepare, rather than reporting on the event after the fact.

Why is that such a big deal? If you are a subscriber or you pick up our magazine in stores, you’ve seen that our August issue is completely eclipse-themed. There’s a reason for this, just like there’s a reason for Eclipse Across America — because a total solar eclipse hasn’t crossed the continental US in nearly a century, most of us simply don’t know what to expect. Come eclipse day, that’s going to be a mistake we can’t afford to make. Enter Eclipse Across America, which is designed to get you the information you need about the eclipse in advance of the event so that, come August 21, you can be part of astronomical and American history, rather than realizing too late that you’ve missed one of the most significant events of a lifetime.

And the fact is, this message cannot be stressed enough. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Mark Bender, a professional eclipse chaser and filmmaker behind Eclipse Across America, to find out just why this series is so special, and why its message is so essential.

Location, location, location

Reason number one: August’s eclipse is right in our backyard. Bender spoke about the challenges of observing eclipses, particularly the fact that it often requires both money and time to travel to farway locations to watch such events unfold. Since his first eclipse experience in 1999, he’s traveled to locations like Indonesia and Svalbard to watch the sky grow dark.

That’s extremely prohibitive for your average Joe, and even your enthusiastic eclipse chaser. But this year, things are different. Americans across the country can hop in the car or, at worst, book a short flight and find themselves in the path of totality. Many will be able to literally step outside their home, office, or school and watch as the Moon’s shadow blots out the entirety of our Sun, all without traveling more than a few feet.

“It’s a big country — a big chunk of the globe,” Bender said. “In the past, your choice of location was mandated by the path. Now, there are a million choices.”

You can choose the landmark that will define your eclipse experience. // Image courtesy of CuriosityStream

That’s why the first two episodes of Eclipse Across America are essentially a travel log — a closer look at the communities and more along the path the eclipse will take. Whether you plan to take in the eclipse west or east of the Mississippi, this “primer on the adventure of getting into the path of totality,” said Bender, will highlight your options and ensure you choose the destination that’s right for you.

“Eclipses are all different,” Bender explained. And part of that difference is the location from which you’re watching the Sun disappear. “What else do you want to see at the same time?” he asked. This year, observers can choose from countless landmarks and backdrops throughout the United States to make their eclipse day unique, from stunning state parks to manmade landmarks such as Carhenge.

An unprecedented view

Reason number two: The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the United States from coast to coast was 99 years ago. You can imagine that technology may have progressed slightly between then and now.

Even so, without eclipses, “there’s not much you can do to look at the Sun,” said Bender. For example, NASA’s Solar Probe Plus, scheduled to launch next year, is the first time we will get physical data back from the Sun, as the probe literally touches the Sun by flying through its atmosphere.

But short of flying into the Sun, what can we do? We can watch eclipses, which provide the only opportunity to view the Sun’s corona from Earth. “Science is based on observation,” Bender said, “but you only get a couple of minutes to see the corona. You can look for two minutes, then you go away and it’s several years before you can look at it again.”

That’s where the last century of technological progress comes into play, he explained. “The resources we can throw at this eclipse are different than 99 years ago.”

Don't take your eyes off the corona. // Image credit: CNES/CNRS/NASA

Those resources include the Eclipse Megamovie project, a citizen science project designed to take our observations of the Sun’s corona from a few paltry minutes to a bountiful hour and a half. By enlisting observers literally from sea to shining sea, the Eclipse Megamovie project will combine data from each point along the path to create one 90-minute long “virtual observation” that will allow us to look at the Sun’s corona for a length of time that has never before been possible, and is the subject of the series’ episode four: “Witnessing the Eclipse.”

“No one’s looked at the corona for that long,” Bender stressed. “Just taking the observation is the breakthrough.” What makes it possible now is the “sophistication of the country, the unique path, and the technology” available today. Mobile phones, which nearly (if not) everyone in the path will have on hand, are “the ultimate scientific tool,” he enthused. Not only are these devices capable of capturing images, they also possess positioning technology to tag those images in time and space. That information makes it easier to combine individual photos and videos into a single virtual observation, providing solar scientists with the “big data” on the corona that they’ve never before been able to access.

“This is the beginning of the adventure,” Bender enthused. “We’re just beginning to understand how the Sun works.”

The takeaway

What are Bender’s most important takeaways? In my mind, there are three. First, “There’s no time to rest!” he said. Five years ago, when the Eclipse Megamovie project was in its planning stages, he was already feeling a time crunch. Now, the eclipse is just over a month away. If you don’t have plans, it’s time to make them. It’s vital to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there well in advance of the event, because you’re not the only one hoping to catch a glimpse of the corona.

Second, “Don’t take your eyes off the eclipse. Do not take your eyes off the corona.” Bender said this to me not only as a journalist tasked with repeating this message to our readers, but as an individual who’s never had the opportunity to see a total solar eclipse before. Eclipses are not only scientifically valuable, Bender said, they also have philosophical and religious implications as well. What’s more, they only occur at this time and in this point in space because of the alignment of the Earth-Moon-Sun system (which you’ll learn about in episode three, “Eclipse Planet”). Earth seems “designed for this one spectacular moment,” he said, and you won’t want to miss it. If you do, you’ll definitely regret it — and you won’t realize how much until the opportunity has passed.

The unique size and orientation of the Earth-Moon-Sun system allows us to enjoy total solar eclipses from this one place in the solar system at this one point in time. // Image courtesy of CuriosityStream.

And third, Eclipse Across America is a unique and valuable documentary, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else. Bender stressed the foresight and generosity of CuriosityStream in providing him with the ability to create this four-part series before the eclipse has even occurred. 

This documentary “fills a hole, a need that the public didn’t even know they had,” he said. He sees it as a public service, a chance to put out information about the eclipse on the scale necessary to prepare the public for the “spectacular moment” occurring next month.

“How do you prepare for the unexpected?” Bender asked. You’ll find out in just a few days, when you can catch all four episodes of Eclipse Across America, available on CuriosityStream beginning July 13.

Oh, and one fun fact: Mark saw his very first (life- and career-changing) eclipse in 1999 in Cornwall, England. This eclipse occurs one saros cycle — 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours — later. On August 21, when he watches the Great American Eclipse, the Sun, Moon, and Earth will be in virtually the same orientation as they were during the 1999 event that spawned his eclipse-chasing career, his love of solar astronomy, and his dedication to creating the type of documentary you’re about to enjoy.

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