Editor’s Note: ‘Peeling Back the Daytime Sky’

The solar eclipse from a skywatcher’s perspective.

Many of us are gearing up for a couple-hours-worth of cosmic cover-up on April 8, when a total solar eclipse will pass over North America. Totality will be visible in a swath across the middle of the U.S., with the path of totality entering the U.S. in Texas then advancing northeast across the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, and reaching New York state during the mid-afternoon, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Here from our Door County viewing platform, the moon will eclipse the sun only partially – covering about 86.9% of it. The event will begin at 12:56 pm and last about two hours, 27 minutes. 

When I think of anything cosmic, I think of Tom Gwilym. He’s our local evening stargazer and Dark-Sky-advocate extraordinaire (officially, he’s the vice president of the Door Astronomical Society, lead telescope wrangler at the society’s site, part of the Crossroads at Big Creek campus in Sturgeon Bay, and a northern Wisconsin Advocate for the International Dark-Sky Association).

I asked him about the upcoming eclipse and received a reliably interesting and thorough explanation, including a rating of the coolness factors associated with different types. But hands down, he said, a total solar eclipse has the “maximum cool factor.” Viewing one, however, comes with several caveats.

“You need to be standing in the shadow of the moon as it moves across the Earth, preferably in the center of it for the longest eclipse,” he said. “Unfortunately, millions of people and their cars will be bunched up along that line. If you can deal with crowds, traffic and ‘event’ pricing, I highly recommend seeing a total eclipse at least once.”

His personal experience of a total solar eclipse was from Madras, Oregon in 2017.

“It got very dark suddenly, and as the sun was totally covered by the moon, there was just a very black void in the sky where the moon hid the sun,” he said. “Stars came out, Venus was very bright, and it was ‘sunset’ all around the horizon. I often describe it as if the blue, daytime sky was suddenly peeled back and exposed space for a couple minutes, then the blue sky was rolled back into place.”

My experience of the 2017 eclipse from southwest Minnesota was rather less poetic (we should add “sky poet” to Tom’s titles). After weeks of anticipation, the purchase of eclipse-rated glasses, and a big, fat empty space on the front of the next-day’s paper awaiting what would surely have been an award-winning photo and story, I watched storm clouds gather and totally blot the sun.

For our upcoming solar event, the partiality from here will make our world not necessarily dark, but certainly a bit dimmer, Tom said. However – and this is a big one – it’s still not safe to look at directly without protection. 

“There will be no safe time – none – to look at the sun without protection,” Tom said.

Tom gave several options for safe viewing:

  • The shadow method. Stand under a tree and look on the ground for the sun coming through the leaves. A lot of partial eclipses can be seen on the ground. You can do the same thing with a pinhole between your fingers, or make a pinhole viewer from a sheet of paper or a box.
  • Through a telescope – as long as it has a filter secured on the end of the scope. 
  • Through a solar telescope. Very expensive and designed only to look at the sun, these have “special filters that allow good views of the solar surface as well as prominences along the edge,” he said. “We have a couple of these we use for club events.”
  • YouTube. “There will be plenty of broadcasts from the path of totality, but we hope to have this running in addition to our viewing,” he said. “Clouds permitting.”

The Door Peninsula Astronomical Society will have a viewing event at the Ray and Ruthie Stonecipher Astronomy Center, at 2200 Utah St. in Sturgeon Bay.

“We’ll have telescopes set up, other safe viewing methods, and we have a bunch of solar viewing glasses to give out on that day,” Tom said.

Here’s hoping for clear skies on April 8 – the next total solar eclipse won’t happen over North America again until 2033, and only Alaskans will see it.