Betty Wilson of Hanover County wears specially filtered glasses that are required until the moon has entirely covered the sun.
It takes the sun’s light about 8½ minutes to blaze across the vast distance to Earth, but to see that sunlight disappear behind the moon for a spectacular instant can require years of planning and days of travel.
You don’t need to be a professional astronomer to appreciate a solar eclipse, but experienced sun-gazers say the true payoff lies in the shadowy path of totality.
“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,” explained Ken Wilson of Hanover County, a veteran eclipse chaser and retired astronomer who has witnessed totality seven times.
“It makes the totally eclipsed sun look like a pale cosmic sunflower,” Wilson said. “Some people cheer at the sight. Some applaud. Others cry. Many just stand in stunned silence.”
Shadows grow odd and the daytime sky dims to a deep twilight as the moon overtakes the sun. For the few minutes of the total eclipse, the temperature drops noticeably. Stars and planets wink into view, along with some nocturnal animals.
On Aug. 21, Richmond will not get to see that surreal sight of totality. The sky will dim somewhat but not go completely dark over Virginia.
The devoted darkness-seeker must journey to the eclipse’s path of totality, which will fall between Oregon and South Carolina.
Ken Wilson and his wife, Betty, have gone as far as Australia and to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea to glimpse previous total eclipses.
Their honeymoon trip was timed to watch an eclipse sweep across Hawaii, but unfortunately clouds intervened.
“We’ve been lucky with all the eclipses since that one,” he said.
As Aug. 21 approaches, the travel strategy will come down to the weather forecast for the Wilsons.
South Carolina is the closest brush with totality for a Richmond-based eclipse watcher, but cloudy skies are a reasonable threat in the Palmetto State.
Tyler Hutchison hopes to watch and photograph his first solar eclipse from Columbia, S.C., but he wouldn’t mind if the pursuit of astronomy takes him all the way to Mars someday.
“We’re going to go a couple of days in advance and set up early that morning, and also watch the radar in case we need to move,” said Hutchison, whose memories of 2015’s clouded-out lunar eclipse are fresh.
The rising junior at St. Christopher’s School is already on the board of the Richmond Astronomical Society and just finished a weeklong educational program at NASA’s Wallops Island facility.
The shiny and round solar filter that will protect his 8-inch-diameter telescope topped the wish list for his 16th birthday.
His passion for photographing planets and remote galaxies — and the sun — may propel him to lofty career goals.
“I think I’d like to do research,” saidHutchison, who stands over six feet tall. “I’d love to be an astronaut — with my height I’m not sure if that’s going to be possible.”
Ted Bunn studies the faintest and most distant cosmic radiation at the University of Richmond.
He’s a professor and chair of the Department of Physics, but his long-planned eclipse trip to rural Oregon is a more personal pursuit.
“I don’t intend to do any science associated with it,” Bunn said. “I always thought I should go when I get a chance.”
He studied the climatology of the country and settled on watching this eclipse from the usually cloud-free town of Madras, Ore.
He expects that Madras’ population of roughly 6,000 people will be greatly outnumbered by fellow eclipse tourists — so much so that he’s even reserved a parking spot in addition to a hotel room.
“Oregon — right on the coast — is not so good. But once you get in a little ways, the cloud cover gets pretty low,” Bunn said. “Idaho would have been just about as good.”
Some of Bunn’s fellow scientists also plan to gather in the interior Northwest for both research and a well-timed conference.
Before the advent of sun-watching satellites, eclipses were the only way to study the glowing corona of energetic and ephemeral plasma that surrounds our nearest star.
An expedition to a 1919 solar eclipse helped validate Einstein’s theory of relativity by revealing that the sun’s gravity slightly bends the light coming from distant stars.
In Richmond, this solar eclipse will be partial — not total — but still worth a careful glance.
Though rare, our 86 percent blockage of the sun will still be quite bright and absolutely dangerous to look at without precautions.
Members of the Richmond Astronomical Society will help provide a safe viewing experience for the public at the Science Museum of Virginia.
“Many of our astronomers are, like other eclipse enthusiasts, traveling to the line of totality for the best view,” said Richmond Astronomical Society president Jim Browder. “A few of our astronomers are staying here in the Richmond area, however, and are planning to provide safely filtered views of the sun through our telescopes for visitors on the day of the eclipse, as long as the weather allows, of course.”
Whether viewing at home or on the road, there’s always the possibility of clouds overshadowing the eclipse.
“I think it’s worth the effort,” Wilson said, “but you must be well-prepared.”