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March 13, 2024

Ask the expert: Why is the upcoming total solar eclipse so special?

MSU astronomer helps you avoid any fear of missing out or FOMO.

“Ask the expert” articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings or offer tips.

Every year brings astronomical events that are worth looking up for — from comets to meteor showers to closely aligned planets — but on April 8, 2024, we will have the opportunity to see something that won’t be visible again, at least in the contiguous United States, until 2045.

Shannon Schmoll, director of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University, explains why this eclipse is so special and offers tips to safely view this stellar event. 

What is a total solar eclipse and why is it a big deal?

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth and is perfectly aligned to completely block the face of the sun. The moon passes in between the Earth and sun every lunar cycle, but its orbit is tilted slightly so it does not always block the sun. For any location on the planet, there is a chance to experience totality every 375 years! 

When and where is the total solar eclipse?

The eclipse will happen April 8, 2024. Depending on your location in North America, the first place to experience totality — the moment when the moon completely blocks the sun — is Mexico’s Pacific coast at around 11:07 a.m. PDT.

The path of totality is a 125-mile-wide path that will extend from Mexico to Canada passing through parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. 

How can I view the total solar eclipse safely?

Looking directly at the sun can cause permanent damage to your eyes, even when most of the sun is blocked. To safely view the total solar eclipse, you will need a pair of eclipse glasses. You can and need to take them off to see the eclipse during totality if you are in the path of totality. At any other time and any other location, you need to protect your eyes. You can also use an indirect viewer that projects an image of the sun. Looking at the sun through a pair of binoculars or a telescope without proper eclipse filters will be extremely dangerous.  

Many people will be traveling to the locations within the path of totality. Other things to keep in mind if you plan on traveling to view the total solar eclipse are to bring food, water, have a full gas tank and plan for extra time on the roads due to traffic. Consider staying where you are and traveling back another day.

What will we see?

The sky will get dark, and you will see a 360-degree sunset and notice some bright stars and planets. In Michigan, it will appear as a partial solar eclipse, and the moon will cover between 90% to 99% of the sun. 

Total Solar Eclipse

What are some other astronomical events to look up for this year?

Comets are leftover material from the formation of the solar system that are made of rock, dust and ice. Their tails form when they are close to the sun. Several comet events will take place in spring and fall.   

    March through April: The comet Pons-Brooks should be visible through binoculars with its peak brightness expected on April 21.  

    September through October: The comet Tsuchinshan-ATLAS could be visible before sunrise in late September and in the evening in October with the best day for viewing on Oct. 13.

Meteors are space rocks and dust that enter Earth’s atmosphere and often burn up before they reach Earth. Here are three opportunities to catch a meteor shower this year.

    May 5 to 6: Eta Aquariid meteor shower

    Aug. 12 to 13: Perseid meteor shower

    Dec. 13 to 14: Peak of the Geminids meteor shower  

Supermoons are named for events when a full or new moon occurs when the moon is slightly closer to Earth, making the moon appear bigger and brighter than usual. You’ll have three opportunities to catch a supermoon in 2024.

    Sept. 18

    Oct. 17

    Nov. 15

By: Emilie Lorditch and May Napora

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