On Aug. 21 a total solar eclipse will pass over North America, the first time one has crossed completely over the continent since 1979. Gordon State College chemistry professor and amateur astronomer Richard Schmude wants people viewing the event to do so safely.
In the first of three planned eclipse workshops hosted by the Jackson-Butts County Public Library, Schmude came to Jackson July 13 to explain how an eclipse works and the three ways people can observe one safely. They include using one’s hands to make a screen to help focus on a shadow of the eclipse on the ground, using a device called a Sunspotter and wearing special glasses to actually track the eclipse in the sky.
“Looking at the sun will cause permanent damage to your eyes,” Schmude said. “The sun is going to be like a cookie with a bite taken out of it.”
A quick way to see the action without looking at the sky at all is to stand in the shade of a tree, then cross one’s fingers across each other to form a waffle pattern. The latticed shadows that result will allow people to see a crescent of shadow from above.
“I’ll be seeing it with my Sunspotter,” Schmude said.
The Sunspotter is a curved device that focuses light and shadow from the eclipse onto paper. When Schmude took participants outside to demonstrate the device, pointing it at the afternoon sun, onlookers got a bonus — a tiny black dot near the edge of the circle of sunlight shining on the paper.
“That’s a sunspot. We’re really lucky to see it. Everything (on the sun) is moving, even the black dot,” Schmude said.
The sunspot is a relatively cooler spot on the surface of the sun that emits less light.
“It’s twice the size of the earth. That was a big one,” he said. “We don’t get too many like that.”
The third way to observe the eclipse is with glasses designed to block the harmful rays of the sun from one’s eyes. One can look into the sky at the eclipsed sun with them, if one is careful, Schmude said. He recommends children use them only under the supervision of an adult.
Some of the sun’s radiation cannot be seen at all so someone looking at the eclipse without aid could be injured before they realize it, Schmude said.
Schmude, who had an asteroid named after him last year, is a coordinator for five astronomy observing sections run by the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. He has been an executive and associate director for the organization. He has received its Walter Haas and Peggy Haas excellence awards for amateur astronomers, according to a 2016 press release from Gordon State College.
He began his talk by walking through the mechanics of an eclipse, demonstrating how the moon revolves around Earth. Mckenzi Bass-Gainey held a globe and Faulkner held a yellow ball representing the sun, complete with a black dot sunspot.
Schmude moved around the library meeting room to show how eclipses happen as the moon moves between the Earth and sun, casting a shadow across whichever part of the world that spins by. When it passes between the sun and Earth at the right angle, that shadow becomes an eclipse.
“It’s easy to understand the motion of the moon, earth and sun,” Schmude said. “The moon’s shadow passes over us.”
Schmude said two parts of the moon’s shadow, the umbra and penumbra, will cross the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21. The penumbra, the outer circle of the eclipse, is not as dark as the umbra, or center.
“We’re going to be in the really dark part of the penumbra, which is going to be about 95 percent totality,” he said. “If you drive up to Nashville, Tenn., you’ll be in the umbra. For 2 minutes or so it’s going to be very dark. If you go to Young Harris, you’ll be able to see the umbra pass over.”
When this happens, he said, children will be in school when the eclipse starts around 12:15 p.m. It will peak between 2:40 and 3:20 p.m. and, barring cloudy weather, good views can be found as early as 1:30 p.m. as the sky darkens. The eclipse will fade around 5 p.m.
“The temperature will drop just a little bit,” he said.