Eclipse: Starlight and darkness when the sun goes out

It's the kind of highly anticipated event that stops people in their tracks.

Every few decades the moon, in its course, orbits between the sun and our Earth in such a way that it completely obscures our most precious source of heat and light from view. In total darkness, stars and other planets and satellites temporarily become illuminated in the daytime.

Which is why, for millions of people, being in the path of totality for Monday's full solar eclipse is a cosmic event not to be missed.

Depending on how weather affects visibility, the eclipse will be partially visible from the Berkshires. The progression will begin at 1:23 p.m., peaking around 2:43 p.m., with the moon hiding about 66 percent of the sun. But for true enthusiasts, being in the path totality is an occasion worth hitting the road for.

Astronomer Jay Pasachoff, a Williams College professor in this field, is preparing to observe and document his 66th eclipse (including partial and total solar and lunar events), in Salem, Ore. The region will be the first in the continental U.S. to be cast in the shadow of the eclipse.

Following Pasachoff and his team will be a film crew from Boston's WGBH producing a special segment, "Eclipse Over America," for the popular "NOVA" television science series for PBS. The segment is set for a quick turnaround, scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Monday, while the event is still fresh in our minds.

Pasachoff is joined, among dozens of other colleagues, by a team of student scientists. The carefully selected young scholars have been intensely training in the Williams physics and science buildings this summer, test driving highly sophisticated and sensitive instruments and software that will collect myriad metrics on the eclipse and its effects on Earth.

Why have so many people focused on one event? Because totality will only occupy that space and time for a mere two minutes.

Because of this, "We have cameras that take 10 exposures per second," Pasachoff told The Eagle in a phone interview last week, a day after he touched down in Oregon to begin preparations. "We'll have 20 telescopes set up in various locations, yielding thousands and thousands of data points."

Which means once the eclipse is over, the work of his expedition team will have only just begun.

While they may not have the same equipment or scientific intent, dozens of people from the Berkshires are traveling to other prime eclipse viewing sites, fired up to have a glimpse at this spectacular celestial show. The path of totality is charted to move from west to east across some 13 states, with others viewing from the periphery.

Tammie Bourdon-Shafer, of Adams, is over the moon about her eclipse experience. She said in a Facebook post, "I'm traveling with my family to the University of South Carolina in Columbia to see the eclipse. This is in the path of totality. I've been planning this for three years. We are getting very excited and hope the weather is good so we don't have to travel to [find] clear skies!!!"

Others will travel to other states, including Wyoming, Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia, to get into the path of darkness.

But there are also plenty of opportunities here in the Berkshires to take in the excitement with neighbors, family and friends.

The Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Dalton Public Library, and BART Charter Public School in Adams are hosting eclipse events, among other groups.

Pasachoff said this is the best response he could hope for from citizens, and that their enthusiasm be contagious.

"I think it will be just great for inspiring students, and I hope all students in the U.S. will be able to see this with their classes," he said. "I'd be glad to have more astronomers out there."

Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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