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Lessons learned

Spectacular sky events stand out in years past — and in years to come.
berman
The Great American Eclipse is long over. But there’s always a “next time” for super celestial events — and lessons to learn.

I recall the big events that lay ahead when I completed school in the ’60s. I vividly remember the sky spectacles that beckoned, dreamlike, in the distant future. I ached to see them. Comet Halley’s return in 1986. The longest upcoming totality in 1991. The expected Leonid meteor storm in 1999. The transits of Venus in 2004 and 2012. The mysterious eclipse of Epsilon Aurigae in 2009. The Great American Eclipse in 2017.

I’ve not been entirely lucky. When I took a group to the equator to optimally see Halley, its tail fell off. Earth and the famous comet were on opposite sides of the Sun during its February 1986 perihelion, and the comet’s tail disappeared just when it was supposed to be best. It was the worst Halley apparition since the days of the Roman Empire. We’ll do much better in 2061.

The 1991 totality was wonderful, and yet, looking back, the unusual disparity between the lunar and solar disk sizes made prominences harder to see. As for the Leonids, well, a storm like we had in 1966 and 1833 did not materialize. No one saw 80 meteors per second this time around. But we still got a heck of a nice display in the wee hours of November 18, 2001: five brilliant green meteors per minute with trains.

The first Venus transit was yummy, though clouds blocked the second. And in 2009, Epsilon Aurigae (the nearest little star to Capella) lost half its light. In those days, I was perilously riding my bike through Asia. At night, I’d stare at Epsilon. It was amazing to see it so dim, a three-year-long event that occurs every 27 years. Researchers at the time announced they’d finally found the source of the dimming: a huge orbiting cloud of particles, each about the size of a piece of gravel. Weird! 

A few eclipse chasers make their totalities a matter of pride. They add up their cumulative shadow time. They scored big during the 1991 totality, when they picked up 61/2 minutes in one shot. We can hope that science won’t someday learn that the Moon’s shadow gives you Alzheimer’s or something.

ASYBB0318_01copy
Comet Halley’s February 1986 apparition was disappointing, as it lacked a long, trailing tail by the time the comet reached perihelion.
NASA
Farfetched? Well, in India they believe eclipses are “unhealthy,” and most still hide from them. I saw this firsthand in 1980, as citizens huddled behind shuttered windows.

As for last August’s American totality, I loved watching as our guests were swept away by the magic, and in the process I learned two new things.

First, I noticed that some respectable news sources like The New York Times wrongly urged observers to only use shade 14 welder’s goggles. I’ve preferred shade 12 during all my totalities going back to 1970, but this time I bought lots of 14s for the group because I thought the high position of the Sun and the resulting increased brightness called for a darker filter.

But as a test, when guests stepped off their coach we asked each to look at the Sun using a 12 and then a 14, and decide which they preferred. Both are equally safe. I’m glad I’d brought along a bunch of 12s — without exception, everyone preferred the brighter image through the 12 to the fainter Sun through the 14. A few said that having a 12 was very important to them. So for the next two totalities (both in southern South America), with the Sun fairly low both times, we’re definitely sticking with 12s.

My other lesson involved binoculars. My long-held advice has always been to mostly watch totality naked eye and use binoculars as an adjunct. But this time around, using the best of my three image-stabilized Canons (the obscenely expensive 10x42 L), I have to say that the rock steadiness and clarity made the pink nuclear flames so “present,” I felt I was closely hovering above the prominences. I gasped. It delivered the most exquisite eclipse views of my entire life as a dog — not a sundog, but a dog that can’t help chasing these things like a fire engine. So now I’ll bark even louder about the value of good binoculars as a vital totality tool.

My new top five “wonders to come” for the next two decades? Some are very unusual. First the winter solstice hyperconjunction of 2020, when Saturn will appear as close to Jupiter as some of its moons! Then the 2024 four-minute U.S. totality, followed by the longest total eclipse until the 22nd century, under virtually guaranteed clear skies on the Nile River in 2027. Then the Friday the 13th Apophis visit — that’s April 2029, when the 3rd-magnitude, Empire State Building-sized asteroid will come just a tenth of the Moon’s distance and glide across the sky, visible to the naked eye. Then in 2036, Epsilon Aurigae’s next weird eclipse occurs as it is covered by that gravel cloud, or whatever its companion may be.

It keeps going. Our lives, marked by dramatic events in the sky.

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