Eclipse Day 2017: A Day to Gaze Upward in Wonder and Awe

It was a day to remember and treasure for the ages. The path of solar eclipse “totality” ran across our nation from northwest Oregon to southeast South Carolina with multitudes gathered along the route to mark the occasion.

Some were cheated as clouds rolled in obstructing their view of the solar spectacle. But most savored the eclipse, some total, some only 85% or so. It was an event that brought people together in wonder and awe of one of nature’s true spectacles.

It was also a day to honor scientists, those astronomers and astrophysicists who predict with absolute certainty the time and place of these celestial wonders down to a fraction of a second and to fractions of a degree of latitude and longitude.

These are the same scientists who can give you the precise coordinates of the next total solar eclipse track in America in April 2024, which will run from southwest New Mexico to northeast Maine. Once again a major destination on the track of totality, as it was this year, will be Carbondale, Illinois. Make your reservations now.

The solar eclipse focuses attention on the star (our Sun) that we often take for granted. We love sunrise with its amber and golden hues and regularly gather at sunset to enjoy the rainbow of colors that mark the end of the day.

But, our Sun is a wonder of the universe that should never be taken for granted. Solar energy is the most abundant energy resource on earth — 173,000 terawatts of solar energy strikes the Earth continuously. That’s more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy use.

Simply put, just 1 second of the Sun’s energy output would power the U.S. for 9 million years. Imagine, capturing just one second of all that energy and we wouldn’t need power plants, thus eliminating the risks inherent in coal burning and nuclear power plants.

If all the sunlight energy striking the Earth’s surface in Texas alone could be converted to electricity, it would be up to 300 times the total power output of all the power plants in the world! But, sadly, we capture and use only a very small percentage of that energy.

Or to use a more “explosive” illustration, multiply the world’s entire nuclear stockpile seven million times and detonate it. That’s also about one second’s solar energy output from the Sun.

In addition to supplying a virtually endless source of enormous energy to our planet, the Sun is a huge, dominating presence in our Solar System. (Suppose that’s why it’s called the Solar System, not the Earth System?) The Sun contains 99.86% of the mass in the entire Solar System. The mass of the Sun is 330,000 times greater than that of Earth (in fact, one million Earths could fit inside the Sun with ease).

The Sun consists of 70% hydrogen and 28% helium and its enormous heat energy (at its core 15 million degrees Celsius) is generated when hydrogen nuclei collide, fusing into heavier helium atoms and releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the fusion process.

The light and energy from this fusion reaction in the Sun takes 8 minutes to travel the 93 million miles to the Earth. Although this energy reaches Earth in a few minutes, it will already have taken millions of years to travel from the Sun’s core to its surface. So the warmth we feel today from the Sun was really generated millions of years ago deep in the Sun’s core.

As the Earth turns on its axis, we watch the sun traverse the daylight sky from east to west. At times during the day it seems to be totally motionless. Nonetheless, the Sun is actually traveling at 128 miles per second in its own orbit around the Milky Way Galaxy. It takes the Sun 225-250 million years to complete one orbit of the Milky Way.

On that magical day of the total eclipse, folks gathered along the path of totality, lying on beach blankets, sitting in chaise lounge chairs, or just standing perfectly still staring skyward slack-jawed in awe. They may have seemed totally motionless, but as author James A. Michener wrote in his 1982 novel Space:

[A]t this moment I’m sitting on this piece of Earth at 34 degrees, 30 minutes North, which means I’m spinning west to east at the rate of 860 miles an hour. At the equator, because of the bulge, 1040 miles per hour. At the same time my Earth is moving through its orbit around the Sun at 66,661 miles an hour, and my Sun is carrying itself and its planets toward the star Vega at something like 36,000 miles an hour. Our Sun and Vega move around the Galaxy at the blinding speed of 700,000 miles an hour, and the Galaxy itself rotates at 559,350 miles an hour. And that’s not all. Our Galaxy moves in relation to all the other galaxies as they rush through the universe at the speed of more than 1,000,000 miles any hour. So, when I sit here absolutely still, I’m moving in six wildly different directions at an accumulated speed of maybe 2.5 million miles an hour. So, I can never be motionless. I’m traveling always at speeds which are incomprehensible…. And, perhaps the universe itself is hurtling toward some undefined destination at a speed which could hardly be stated, perhaps to clear our space for a better universe which will supplant us while we rush off to some new adventure.

While Michener’s elegant prose captures the vast marvels of our universe, astrophysicists have a terribly difficult time explaining in lay terms the miraculous wonders of their discoveries. They live in a world of detailed cosmic observations and complex mathematical theory. They dream of parallel universes, red shift Doppler effect, dark energy, and the expansion of space time. Among themselves they speak a language few laymen have a chance of understanding.

But for lay people and amateur astronomy buffs, suffice it to say the total eclipse of the Sun is a once-in-a-lifetime, awe-inspiring event (even at 2.5 million miles per hour) which really brought people together in celebration of our Sun and the mysteries of our universe.

Just remember not to look at that great solar energy generator up there in the cosmos without your eclipse glasses.

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