Astronomy Educator, David Britten, discusses his experience attending the 2017 Solar Eclipse and how schools can get better involved in these stellar, live events. 

obscuratio solis      éclipse solaire totale      totale zonsverduistering      kaiki nissyoku
eclipse total de sol      plena eklipso suna      te marama katoa o te ra

School trips can be very rewarding, but they usually involve much planning, organisation and hard work. At Stardome, we greatly appreciate the effort and dedication of teachers who bring their classes.

The Great American Total Solar Eclipse in August 2017 was an event visible across the entire continental US. Most saw a partial eclipse, where only a portion of the Sun was hidden by the Moon.

The path of totality, where the entire Sun was covered by the Moon, traversed the US from Oregon on the west coast to North Carolina on the east coast. It is only during totality that features of the Sun such as the corona and prominences can be seen. Stars can also be seen nearby, in the darkened day time. 

Although the path of totality was less than 100km wide and missed the major cities, it was within a day’s drive of half the entire population of the US! This prompted wide debate among school teachers, administrators, parents, science educators and the media about the merits and drawbacks of taking students out of class to view the eclipse in situ. Internet sites and streaming services were available for almost anyone to view the eclipse live as it crossed the continental US. So why go to the trouble and expense of taking school groups far from their schools to view the event? Why risk the disappointment of uncooperative weather?

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity of observing this eclipse from an observatory in North Carolina. I have seen a number of partial solar eclipses and one annular eclipse, but never a total eclipse of the Sun. As with all Earth-based astronomical observations at visual wavelengths, the weather, particularly cloud cover, always has the final say.

After a clear morning, the sky gradually became patchy as the clouds built up past midday. As totality approached, the crickets chirped and the birds began their evening roosting songs, then stopped when darkness suddenly descended. This was my first experience of totality – night-time during the day. Just 1 minute and 44 seconds later the Sun brilliantly shone from behind the Moon’s limb. The birds sang their ‘morning’ songs, briefly, and then it was over.

The eclipse experience was unforgettable. But, sadly, the clouds had pushed their way in front to obscure the whole of totality! We saw no corona, prominences, planets or stars. Afterwards, the clouds mockingly allowed us views of the Moon sliding away from the Sun’s bright face. Was it a waste of time? No! We all learn over time to deal with clouds and weather conditions interfering with viewing the night-time sky. Daytime expectations shouldn’t be any different.

Huge numbers of students were able to view the total eclipse through the efforts and dedication of their teachers, schools and communities. However, since returning I learnt of instances where teachers at schools where totality was visible kept their students inside because of misguided health & safety fears of children looking at the Sun. Other students missed out through overly restrictive internet access policies. Sadly, a lack of funds, advanced planning or sufficient motivation left many other students unable to view totality.

The last total solar eclipse in New Zealand was in 1965, which I missed. The next are in 2028 and 2037, which I may well also miss. However, my hope is that planning for the 2028 total solar eclipse is undertaken in good time, allowing ample opportunity for all school children to experience this wonderful event. The path of totality crosses the entire Australian continent, then the Tasman Sea before ending east of Dunedin.

Taking school children to Australia may be out of the question, but a large proportion of children near the path of totality in Southland and Otago, and those further afield, will have the opportunity of experiencing the eclipse. Students who can’t travel to Otago for the real experience will hopefully access high-quality streaming online, supported by their teachers and schools.

Solar Eclipse

Total solar eclipses for next 20 years. Credit: Roen Kelly/Discover Magazine.