While millions of Americans are getting ready to witness their first total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, it could be the eight brush with totality for Ken Wilson of Hanover County.
Ken and his wife Betty have traveled as far as Australia, Japan and the Mediterranean Sea to take in the surreal sight — and even made a honeymoon trip out of the heavenly alignment.
He has been retired for ten years after a career teaching astronomy at local colleges and at the Science Museum of Virginia.
I asked him some questions about the logistics of getting into the path of the moon's shadow and what it feels like when things go dark.
How many eclipses have you observed: total, partial and otherwise? What's the farthest you've gone for one?
I’ve lost track of the number of lunar and partial solar eclipses I’ve seen over the years, probably a couple of dozen. It’s the total solar eclipses that I keep track of because they are so memorable.
I’ve seen seven total solar eclipses, so far. The most recent total solar eclipse was on Nov. 14, 2012.
I’ve traveled to eight total solar eclipses. [The 1991 Hawaii eclipse was not visible due to clouds; more on that below]
The most distant one was the one in 2012 that we saw from Australia.
Describe the moment of totality: sights, sensations, emotions or social experiences. What makes it unique and memorable?
The experience of each total solar eclipse is unique due to several factors including location, climate, length of totality, the weather, the people who are with you, and so on.
The combination of stars and planets visible during totality varies and the shape of the sun’s corona is different each time. The appearance of the sun’s crimson prominences and Bailey’s Beads also change with each eclipse. However, there are certain aspects that are common to all total solar eclipses.
Assuming the sky is clear, the eclipse begins with what’s called ‘first contact’ – the moment when the moon’s dark disk begins to intrude on the sun’s bright disk. Unless you are watching for this moment (only with proper safe filters, of course) you probably wouldn’t notice this start of the eclipse.
But slowly over the next hour and a half that dark moon slowly chews a bigger bite out of the sun until it’s almost gone. As it does so, the sky gradually darkens and what sunlight is left takes on an eerie quality.
As the sun dwindles away and becomes a crescent shape, the shadows it casts are sharp in one dimension but soft in the direction 90 degrees away.
Eventually, just before the sun is totally eclipsed, a small bit of the sun shines like a diamond and it is now dark enough to start seeing the corona, the fainter outer atmosphere of the sun.
This fuzzy circle of light around the dark moon creates, along with that last bit of sunlight, the brief but spectacular diamond ring effect.
As the moon finishes covering the sun and extinguishes the diamond ring we reach what’s called ‘second contact’. The eclipse is now total.
The temperature has dropped as much as 20 degrees. The next few seconds or minutes are the only time when it is safe to look at the eclipse directly without special filters.
The sky is now as dark as it is in deep twilight. Planets and brighter stars are now visible. Nocturnal animals and insects may stir and emerge.
If you look closely at the eclipsed sun you may see some tiny crimson spots around the edge of the dark spot of the moon. These are concentrations of hot solar gas, called prominences, in the sun’s lower atmosphere.
And you will now be able to fully see the sun’s corona extending out in all directions. It makes the totally eclipsed sun look like pale cosmic sunflower.
All too soon, the rare, awe-inspiring phenomenon of totality comes to an end with ‘third contact’ as the moon continues its orbital journey and slowly uncovers the sun, first with another brief diamond ring, followed by a reverse playback of the partial phases that led up to totality
The moment the moon has completely uncovered the sun is called ‘fourth contact’ and the eclipse finally over.
No one who has seen a total solar eclipse will ever forget it. No photograph or video does it justice. For a brief moment in time you are in a very special spot in the cosmos, positioned in exact alignment between the Earth, sun, and moon, witness to one of nature’s rarest spectacles.
Some people cheer at the sight. Some applaud. Others cry. Many just stand in stunned silence.
Do you go alone, with family or with groups? Have you made friends out of it?
I’ve been a part of a group for all of them. My first total solar eclipse, in 1972, included about a dozen young amateur astronomy friends from Michigan who drove for 24 hours to Quebec and camped out in Cap Chat for an eclipse that was clouded out except for a brief hole in the clouds during totality. I’m still friends with several people in that group.
Since I got married, I’ve traveled to eclipses with my wife Betty who shares my passion for being in the moon’s shadow. In fact we took our honeymoon in Hawaii to see a total solar eclipse which was, unfortunately clouded out. We’ve been lucky with all the eclipses since that one.
We usually join up with small organized tour groups who travel for eclipses and make a vacation out of the trip. That way, even if the eclipse is clouded out, you still have a nice vacation. We’ve made many friends on these trips.
What are some obstacles to eclipse chasing? Do you have a story about that?
Well there are the usual obstacles to any long distance travel, such as delayed or cancelled flights, cramped airline seats, lost or damaged luggage.
One of our trips required a cruise ship to get to the eclipse path in the Mediterranean Sea. Just before we arrived at the dock, we discovered that ship we were booked on had been impounded due to some legal action against the owner. At the last minute, our tour organizer had to arrange for a replacement ship and ad hoc crew. The replacement ship had a different floor plan and fewer rooms.
In spite of the chaos, we saw a magnificent eclipse in clear skies.
Do you take photographic equipment every time or sometimes is it just a naked-eye viewing experience?
I've always taken photo gear with me, but many folks enjoy just watching an eclipse. In fact, for first-timers, I recommend not taking photos because you might miss a lot of the experience if you're distracted by a camera.
What's your background in astronomy?
I trace this back to the mid-1960s when the space program was in its early days. My parents took me to the Michigan State Fair where the Detroit Astronomical Society had telescopes set up for public viewing at night. All it took was a clear view of the moon and Saturn’s rings and I was hooked!
I studied astronomy and education in college. I have a master’s degree in astronomy. I’ve spent most of my professional life working in planetariums, including the one at the Science Museum of Virginia where I worked for almost 25 years until retiring.
I’ve also taught astronomy as an adjunct in San Francisco and here in Richmond — VCU, University of Richmond, J. Sargeant Reynolds, and Randolph Macon. So now I’d describe my astronomy involvement as mainly a hobby.
What are your plans for the upcoming eclipse on Aug. 21?
My wife and I plan to go to the path of totality to see the eclipse. Exactly where will depend on the weather forecast closer to the day of the eclipse.
What would you say to someone who is on the fence about whether it’s worth the travel?
Well it’s a rare opportunity to have a total eclipse so close to home. There hasn’t been one this close to Virginia since 1970. However, if you miss this one, there will be another in 2024.
I think it’s worth the effort. But you must be well prepared.
Most hotels and camp grounds are already fully booked. It’s also getting harder to get eclipse glasses.
If you plan to drive to the path of totality, leave well in advance of the eclipse and bring proper eclipse glasses, food, lots of water, good road maps, sun block, insect repellent, toilet paper, and lots of patience for the inevitable traffic jams.