The Great American Eclipse of 2017, that’s a Big One off of my Bucket List.

Did you see it? Did you get to see the eclipse? The place I chose to travel to in order to see the eclipse was Sweetwater Tennessee and boy did I pick the right spot. Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of totality in an absolutely cloudless sky. Those are two minutes and thirty-seven seconds that I will never forget.

Now Sweetwater is a pretty little town just about thirty miles south of Knoxville, Tennessee with a population of 5,764. The townspeople knew this was going to be a big event for them and they made sure that they were ready. The main street of the town had been blocked off for the eclipse and a small park across the street was laid out with food vendors, people selling souvenirs and artists with their goods.

Every available parking spot had been opened up for visitors at reasonable rates, I paid $20, and the money that was collected for parking mostly went to local charities. The pictures below shown the main street and park before the crowd really started coming.

Sweetwater, Tenn. Main Street (Credit: R.A.Lawler)
Sweetwater, Tenn. Park Area (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

I wanted to be certain to arrive early so I got to Sweetwater at 8AM, that’s when the pictures were taken. Finding myself a nice spot in the shade of a cafe to wait for the show to start, I quickly made friends with a father and son; both named Glenn, from Houston and Baton Rouge who had actually arrived in Sweetwater at 2AM. They really wanted to be sure to get a good spot! I also met people from Pittsburgh, Detroit and New York along with several from nearby Knoxville and Chattanooga. The town hasn’t yet published any estimate of the number of visitors, if they do I’ll add it later, but I’d say that at least 15,000 people came.

In the early morning there were no clouds of any kind so with the bright August Sun the day quickly became fairly hot. Soon anyone who wasn’t actually buying something was staying in the shade where a nice breeze made it fairly comfortable. A few clouds started rolling in about noon and by around 1PM as the partial eclipse was starting you could hear a few people whisper, ‘I hope it doesn’t get any worse’. Well, it got better, by 2:30 and the start of totality there was an absolutely clear sky. Perfect viewing for something I’ve wanted to see my whole life.

I did take my solar telescope and managed to get some decent videos of the partial eclipse. The videos are all too large to imbed so I’ll just have to add a single frame image from one video. (If you look closely on the Sun’s left side you can see a small Sunspot.)

Partial Eclipse through Solar Telescope (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

Once totality started however I didn’t want to waste time fiddling with the solar telescope and just took a few of images with the same camera I used to take the pictures of Sweetwater. The best image is below.

Total Eclipse of the Sun (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

As I said, Sweetwater got two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of totality, that’s just five seconds less than the maximum time for the eclipse anywhere in the US. That was enough time for me to find the four planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter that became visible as the Sunlight was blocked by the Moon. Think of it, seeing four planets arching across the sky at 2:30 in the afternoon!

I have no doubt you can find better images of the eclipse very easily on the internet, I’ve never been much of a photographer and surely millions of people were taking pictures. These are mine however, and mean more to me than I can say. Yes I spent four days traveling to Tennessee and back and yes the traffic jam after the eclipse was the worst I have ever experienced. Nevertheless, I will always remember the town of Sweetwater because it was there I saw my first total eclipse of the Sun.



Eclipse of 2017

There’s only another month to go before the United States is treated to a total solar eclipse that will stretch across the entire continent beginning in Oregon and ending in South Carolina. Occurring on Monday the 21st of August this eclipse will be the grandest astronomical event to take place in our skies for over a hundred years and I hope that many of you will be able to enjoy at least some of the show.

Solar Eclipse (Credit: Justin Ng)

If you are planning on taking part in the fun please heed this warning:


Every time a good solar eclipse occurs hundreds of people injure their eyes by not taking the necessary precautions. And it is so easy to get glasses that will give you all the protection you need. Seriously, Wal-Mart has them, Amazon has them, dozens of retailers are selling eclipse glasses for prices starting at $10 so please get a pair!!!

Now everybody knows that a solar eclipse is caused by the Moon passing in front of the Sun from our point of view here on Earth. (A lunar eclipse on the other hand is caused when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon) However many people are unsure of some of the details, such as the difference between the Umbra, where you get a total eclipse, and the Penumbra where you only get a partial eclipse.

Looking at the figure below from NASA you can see that while the Sun is much larger than the Moon (its diameter is about 4000 times larger) it is also much farther away from Earth (about 4000 times further). That’s why they look almost exactly the same size in our sky. Following the lines of the Sun’s outer edges you can see how the Moon blocks some of the light from the Sun over a large swath of the Earth’s surface (this is the Penumbra) but only completely blocks the Sun over a small region (this is the Umbra) and only for a very short period of time.

Geometry of Solar Eclipse (Credit: NASA)

To see a total eclipse, to see the stars and planets come out in the daytime and to see the Sun’s corona you must be within the narrow band of the Umbra. The map below shows the path of the Umbra across the US with the local times that totality will occur. If you’d like to get a more detailed map of your area click on the link below the map to be taken to NASA’s special website for this eclipse.

Eclipse Times (Credit: NASA)

Now my hometown of Philadelphia is nowhere close to the path of totality so I’m heading to Nashville, Tennessee, which is one of several major cities within the path of totality, and only a few miles from the point of maximum duration. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that the weather is clear on eclipse day. There’s actually a long history of astronomers and other scientists making long journeys to witness and study total eclipses only to wind up see nothing but clouds.

There’s another big total eclipse coming seven years from now in 2024. That one will be closer to me, crossing Ohio, western Pennsylvania and much of New York so hopefully I’ll get another chance if this year’s eclipse doesn’t work out. So wish me luck, and I’ll do the same for you. If things go well I’ll be able to share some great pictures with you in just a few weeks.