The total solar eclipse is only one week away: Here are some last-minute tips for eclipse viewing and traveling.
The total solar eclipse of Aug. 21 will be visible along a narrow "path of totality" that runs from Oregon to South Carolina. Tens of millions of people are expected to travel into the path to view the event. Outside of that path in North America, people will still have a view of the partial solar eclipse.
As the big day draws near, we've been getting lots of questions from readers about the eclipse. To answer those queries, we asked Angela Speck, co-chair of the American Astronomical Society's Solar Eclipse Task Force and the director of astronomy at the University of Missouri, for some last-minute advice. [Solar Eclipse Glasses: Where to Buy the Best, High-Quality Eyewear]
"We've only just got to the point where people are starting to believe [the eclipse] is going to be as big as it is," Speck said. "I've been telling people for three years that it's going to be ludicrously busy. And a lot of people [were] like, 'Oh, you're exaggerating!' And now they're just getting to the point where they're like, 'Oh [shoot], we're not ready for this!' And so my job is to reassure them that there's still time for them to figure stuff out."
Conditions inside the path of totality may resemble a zombie apocalypse. What should I do to prepare?
Tens of millions of people will be traveling into the path, overwhelming local businesses, roads and cellphone networks. At Space.com, we've gathered the best solar eclipse maps for your use.
If you live inside the path of totality, Speck recommended you prepare as if there were a major storm headed your way — fill up your gas tank, do your grocery shopping a few days early, have some emergency supplies on hand (like bottled water and batteries), and try not to travel if you don't have to.
For people driving into the path, Speck said it may take three to four times longer to travel certain distances, so make sure you budget extra travel time. Fill up on gas when you can; carry supplies in your car like water, food and other necessities; and pack things to entertain everyone during the long trip. You might even want to pack a few blankets and pillows in case you're forced to sleep in your vehicle, Speck said.
Bring paper maps or copies of directions to your destination, because cellphone networks may be overwhelmed and you might not be able to use your GPS.
Finally, Speck said people should remain calm and stay flexible; traffic and other travel problems might mean you're forced to view the eclipse from a different location than the one you originally planned; that's OK, as long as you get to see the show.
This sounds very stressful! Why should I put myself through that ordeal?
"I want people to realize it is going to be busy, but it's going to be totally worth it," Speck said. "Even though it's going to take a long time and you have to drive in traffic and all of that, it will be worth it."
A total solar eclipse is considered one of the most amazing sights that the sky has to offer. Some eclipse enthusiasts argue that it is more awe-inspiring than the auroras.
"Once you're in totality … it's going to go dark really fast," Speck said. "It goes from an early twilight color to almost full-moon dark really quickly, like in a second.
"There's going to be what looks like a hole in the sky where the moon is," she continued. "Around that, you're going to see these streamers of white light. That's the corona, or atmosphere of the sun. And that's always there. We just don't get to see it, except when sun is eclipsed. You're also going to get to see stars, planets … there'll be Venus, Mars, Mercury and Jupiter. There's a whole bunch of things to see up there."
And the eclipse isn't just visual, Speck said. Observers will also notice a drop in temperature, a sudden breeze and changes in animal behavior, such as birds going silent or nocturnal insects beginning to chirp.
"You experience it with multiple senses," she said.
I live in a place where 99 percent of the sun will be covered by the moon; that's good enough, right?
"Ninety-nine percent of an eclipse is not ninety-nine percent of the experience," Speck said. "That's the message that I want to get across: If you have a 99 percent eclipse, you don't get darkness, you don't get to see the corona, you don't get to see stars in the middle of the day."
I can't get to the path of the totality for the eclipse; is there anything for me to see on eclipse day?
Speck acknowledges that not everyone will be able to get to the path of totality. But people in North America who are outside the path will still see a partial solar eclipse, which is also worth observing. People outside the path can still watch live streams of totality or try photographing the partial eclipse (with the right equipment).
Her advice: "If you can, get to the path of totality. If you can't, make sure you either have eclipse glasses or a pinhole camera — some way to view it safely — and look at it at the peak time."
What if I can't get eclipse glasses for the total or partial eclipse?
Many online suppliers are already running out of eclipse glasses, and Speck said it is very likely that not everyone who wants a pair will be able to get one. (It is extremely important to buy eclipse glasses from trusted manufacturers and vendors. Using counterfeit or noncertified glasses can cause serious eye damage. Check out our guide to find out where to buy safe glasses and how to test your glasses for safety.)
"I think it is true that there will not be enough [eclipse glasses]," she said. "Remember that the entire nation gets a partial eclipse, so we're talking about 300 million people that will be able to watch something. And for the partial eclipse you absolutely have to have [solar viewing] glasses."
But don't fear! Speck assured skywatchers it's not the end of the world if you can't get a pair of eclipse glasses or a solar viewing card.
If you don't have your own pair of glasses, remember you can share with a friend. Observers need to use solar viewers when looking at the partially eclipsed sun, but in the path of totality, partiality will last for about 90 minutes. There is plenty of time to have a look at the sun and then let someone else use your glasses. You can also get solar-viewing binoculars or solar filters for telescopes and cameras.
If you really can't get a solar viewer, you can always make a pinhole camera that will project an image of the sun and show you the progress of the moon through the sky. (A pinhole camera is not used to look directly at the sun.) You can build a pinhole camera at home, or even use found objects like a straw hat to make projections of the sun on the ground. [How to View a Solar Eclipse Without Damaging Your Eyes]
(Editor's Note: Here are some of the best places to turn your eclipse trip into an outdoor adventure, according to our sister-site, Active Junky. Most campgrounds are booked, but here are great eclipse-viewing spots that are off the grid.)
Can I use welder's goggles to view the eclipse?
According to the American Astronomical Society, "the only [welding filters] that are safe for direct viewing of the sun with your eyes are those of shade 12 or higher. These are much darker than the filters used for most kinds of welding.
"If you have an old welder's helmet around the house and are thinking of using it to view the sun, make sure you know the filter's shade number," the AAS website said. "If it's less than 12 (and it probably is), don't even think about using it to look at the sun. Many people find the sun too bright even in a shade 12 filter, and some find the sun too dim in a shade 14 filter — but shade 13 filters are uncommon and can be hard to find.
"In any case, welding filters generally give a sickly green image of the sun, whereas special-purpose solar viewers give a white, yellow or orange image, which is much more pleasing and natural," the website said. "Our Reputable Vendors of Solar Filters & Viewers page doesn't list any suppliers of welder's filters, only suppliers of filters made exclusively for viewing the sun."
If you can't find shade 13 welding filters, can you combine two dimmer filters? Rick Feinberg, press officer for AAS, told Space.com that that a shade 5 and shade 10 filter together would technically give the eye protection of a shade 14 (not a shade 15), which would protect your eyes, but the view would "probably be terrible!"
I heard it's unsafe to look at the totally eclipsed sun. Is that true?
Quite the opposite.
It is safe to look at the eclipse when the disk of the sun is completely covered by the moon. When even a sliver of the sun is visible, use proper eye protection.
I heard that looking at the partially eclipsed sun is worse than looking at the non-eclipsed sun or can damage my eyes faster than the non-eclipsed sun. Is that true?
Whether the moon is covering part of the sun's disk or is nowhere near the sun in the sky, looking directly at the sun can permanently damage your eyes. Looking at a partially eclipsed sun is no more dangerous than looking at a non-eclipsed sun. Even a sliver of the sun's disk is bright enough to cause eye damage, so wear proper eye protection except during totality.
I want to photograph the total eclipse/I want to view the total solar eclipse through binoculars or a telescope. What do I need to know?
If this is your first time seeing a total solar eclipse, most experts say you should just enjoy totality. Don't try to take pictures, and don't spend too much time fiddling with binoculars or a telescope. Even seasoned eclipse observers say that they sometimes forget to use their equipment during totality, because they are literally awestruck.
Whatever you do, make sure that during the partial phase of the eclipse (when any part of the sun's disk is visible), you have a solar filter in front of any lens or piece of equipment you use, Speck said.
For example, if you look through a telescope at the partially eclipsed sun, there must be a solar filter over the telescope lens. Do not look at the sun through an unfiltered telescope,even if you are wearing eclipse glasses. Sunlight that passes through a telescope lens is magnified, so it is even more intense than looking directly at the sun unaided. (You may recall that when sunlight passes through a magnifying glass, it is focused into a small space and is intense enough to start fires.) The magnified light can damage your eyes even if you are wearing solar viewing glasses, because those glasses were not made to block such high levels of radiation. Solar filters must also be used on camera lenses and binoculars.
Speck said people should also take care when trying to photograph the sun on smartphones or tablets. Sunlight can damage the camera or screen on your phone or tablet. You can avoid that type of damage by covering the camera with one half of a pair of solar viewing glasses. (And take care not to look at the sun with your naked eye while you are trying to take a picture.)
To improve the quality of your image, first take the phone or tablet out of the case before taping the filter over it to improve the clarity of the image. And make sure you have a tripod or a stable way to position whatever camera you use, Speck said, otherwise the minute vibrations of your hand will make the image blurry. Through a solar filter, the sun is about as bright as the full moon, so try going outside at night when the moon is up and practice your camera work ahead of the eclipse.
How do most people react to a total solar eclipse?
"As far as I can tell, anybody who sees one of these things gets excited, and actually pretty emotional," she said. "You don't have to be into science. This is something that can appeal to everybody."
Speck said people should also expect to hear "a lot of cursing" when watching the eclipse with a large group. "There's a lot of people for whom, that's how they express that level of emotion. It's a gut feeling," she said.
If you can, take Speck's advice and get to the path of totality on eclipse day!
Editor's note: Space.com has teamed up with Simulation Curriculum to offer this awesome Eclipse Safari app to help you enjoy your eclipse experience. The free app is available for Apple and Android, and you can view it on the web. If you take an amazing photo of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, let us know! Send photos and comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.