Bad Astronomy | When the Moon ate the Sun

Last week, on August 21, 2017, the stars aligned. Well, one star, and a moon. Specifically, our star and our moon: The Moon’s orbit brought it in exact alignment with the Sun in the sky, causing a solar eclipse.

The shadow of the Moon swept across the continental United States, and a lot of people flocked to the path of totality to watch it. My wife and I were two of them; we brought about 30 people to a ranch near Dubois, Wyoming to view the eclipse as part of our Science Getaways vacation company.

My wish for this event was that, besides the usual (but of course still astonishing) views of the eclipse, we’d see some odd sights from the millions of people who took photos. That turns out to have been the case. Let me show you just a few …

First, I have the video “Stormhenge” by astrophotographers Harun Mehmedinović and Gavin Heffernan (the creators of the Skyglow project). They traveled to Nebraska to get footage at Carhenge, 39 cars assembled to create a scaled version of Stonehenge. Yes, you read that right. There’s a whimsy to this video (which I found strangely amplified by the dramatic music) that ends with a truly wonderful set of shots of The Main Event. Watch:

I remember writing about this eclipse some time ago, and someone asked me why it was being called “an American eclipse.” Besides the obvious — the path of totality crossed the U.S., so it was only able to be seen from here — I think gatherings at places like Carhenge made it uniquely American.

An aspect of the eclipse that surprised me has to do with the geometry. When the Moon is exactly in front of the Sun, we are seeing the Moon’s dark side, the half of it not lit by the Sun. In general, that would mean the Moon’s surface is itself invisible; after all it’s very dark, and even though the surface of the Sun is blocked, the Sun’s corona, its outer atmosphere, is bright (about as bright as the full Moon, actually), and the sky around…

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