Americans stake out prime eclipse viewing

The Associated Press
Marcia Dunn

Americans with telescopes, cameras, and protective glasses staked out viewing spots along a narrow corridor from Oregon to South Carolina today to watch the moon blot out the midday sun in what promised to be the most observed and photographed eclipse in history.
Eclipse-watchers everywhere–and millions were expected to peer at the sun–fretted about the weather and hoped for clear skies for the first total solar eclipse to sweep coast-to-coast across the U.S. in practically a century.
As he set up telescopes, Ray Cooper, a volunteer with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Salem, worried offshore clouds might roll in and spoil the less than two-minute show.
“If it stays like this, it will be perfect,” Cooper said on the eve of the big day.
He has seen full solar eclipses before but never so close to home, making this one extra special.
With 200 million people within a day’s drive of today’s path of totality, towns and parks braced for monumental crowds.
In Salem, a field outside the state fairgrounds was transformed into a campground in advance of an eclipse-watching party for 8,500, courtesy of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
“It’s one of those ‘check the box’ kind of things in life,” said Hilary O’Hollaren, who drove 30 miles from Portland with her two teenagers and a tent, plus a couple of friends.
Astronomers consider a full solar eclipse the grandest of cosmic spectacles.
The Earth, moon, and sun line up perfectly every one-three years, briefly turning day into night for a sliver of the planet.
But these sights normally are in no man’s land, like the vast Pacific or Earth’s poles.
This will be the first eclipse of the social media era to pass through such a heavily-populated area.
In a case of near-perfect celestial symmetry, the sun is 400 times the breadth of our moon and also 400 times farther away, so the two heavenly bodies look more or less the same size from our vantage point–and the moon can neatly cover up the sun.
The moon hasn’t thrown this much shade at the U.S. since 1918. That was the country’s last coast-to-coast total eclipse.
In fact, the U.S. mainland hasn’t seen a total solar eclipse since 1979–and even then, only five states in the northwest experienced total darkness.
Today’s total eclipse will cast a shadow that will race through 14 states, entering near Lincoln City, Ore. at 1:16 p.m. (EDT), moving diagonally across the heartland over Casper, Wy., Carbondale, Ill., and Nashville, Tenn., and then exiting near Charleston, S.C. at 2:47 p.m. (EDT).
The path will cut 4,200 km across the land and will be just 96-113 km wide.
Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois will see the longest stretch of darkness: two minutes and 44 seconds.
Mostly clear skies beckoned along much of the route, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.
All of North America will get at least a partial eclipse. Central America and the top of South America also will see the moon cover part of the sun.
NASA and other scientists will be watching and analyzing from telescopes on the ground and in orbit, the International Space Station, airplanes, and scores of high-altitude balloons, which will beam back live video.
Citizen scientists will monitor animal and plant behaviour as daylight turns into twilight and the temperature drops.