Shedding Light on the Great Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 by Greg Mort


A total solar eclipse is an exotic event disrupting the normal routine of our celestial drama. This extraordinary event evokes the same kind of wonder as the appearance of a comet or a meteor shower. Throughout history, cosmic occurrences have ignited inspiration as well as consternation. Historically before eclipses were understood or predicted, ancient people were terrified.

Today we have the benefit of centuries of scientific knowledge to our diminish fears and enrich our experience. However, I would like to propose, to more fully enjoy the Great Total Eclipse of 2017 that you witness it as purely as possible by simply using all your five senses.

The morning of August 21st a total solar eclipse will race across the continental United States drawing an unprecedented amount of public attention. Our first truly transcontinental total solar eclipse in nearly 100 years and the first since the inception of the Internet we will have the ability to instantly communicate personal expression/interpretation and information. Even viewers clouded out or not in the direct path of totality will be able to share the event via live-feeds on many social media platforms.

As an artist and an astronomer who has logged as many hours at the telescope as at my easel, my suggestion is to view this once in a lifetime event free from our normal appendages of multi sensorial devices such as cameras and or communication devices.

While I compose these thoughts several weeks before the big day, many folks have made their travel plans, booked hotels, campsites, rented RV’s, imposed on relatives or strangers in the path of totality. A grand chorus of news coverage, endless but important safety warnings and equipment sales of all sizes and costs have already begun. In fact, if you are just now considering your battle plan, you are behind the curve by quite a bit. Still, don’t despair there is hope. Even if your hometown lies beyond the path of totality, a partial eclipse can be memorable if you take the time to enjoy the spectacle on multiple experiential levels.

Throughout a total solar eclipse and depending upon your location and good fortunate with the weather gods our sun will be partly or entirely blocked out by the moon passing directly in front of it. The moon’s close proximity to Earth allows it to appear to cover (eclipse) the solar disk even though it is hundreds of times smaller than

Greg Mort eclipse watching. Note solar discs projected on the ground.

our sun. As the moon’s shadow travels across the earth at over 1000 miles an hour (due to the moons orbital motion minus the Earth’s eastward), the viewer will witness the gentle lunar dance lasting about two hours from start to finish. The sky will slowly darken; temperatures will drop as the air under the shadow cools causing winds to dissipate transforming the landscape with an eerie stillness. One should not expect the sky to appear uniformly dark.

The area closest to the sun will be darkened, and as we gaze toward the earth’s horizon, it will appear lighter. The highlight, (total coverage of the sun) will only last a little over two minutes. During these tantalizing few moments, the jet-black disk of the moon is directly over the sun. A breathtaking sun-lite halo called the corona (Latin for crown) surrounding the disc. Then as the dance progresses light streaks through the valleys of the lunar mountains in a brief sparkling phenomenon known as “Baily’s Beads.”

Be open to all of the unique qualities a solar eclipse has to offer. There is a fascinating list of observations you can witness aside from following the disc of the moon as it crosses over the sun. For example, since the entire event spans about two hours make a note of how the quality, tone, color or transparency of light around you change. From my experience, wondrous and unusual lighting effects are parts of the drama of any total or partial solar eclipse. In general, the tone of what would normally be a sunny bright day gives way to an ever-changing palette of “silvery” light. Some observers have also reported a “green-ness” as the light diminishes.

Those viewers in the direct path of the moon’s shadow will also enjoy the brief appearance of several planets and bright stars. Starting at about thirty minutes before totality the planets Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury will gradually come into view. The brightest star in our sky, Sirius along with Arcturus, Capella and Regulus will add to the spectacle.

Please remember that no matter how much of the sun’s disc is covered it is always advised to use proper protective eye shielding at all times. Inexpensive Mylar solar filters and glasses are available from many sources.

To photograph or not to photograph is a very common and important question. I was confronted with the same choice during my first artistic commission as a NASA artist. The veteran members of the Shuttle Art team who had portrayed earlier missions wisely suggested not wasting valuable time snapping pictures. Rather they recommended focusing on a real-time emotional eyewitness record.

I failed to heed their warning and purchased a camera that could take continuous frames. Fortunately, as Sally Ride became the first American woman to orbit the Earth, I was able to take a number of images and watch at the carry any of the impact of the brilliant light, thundering sound, earthquake like vibration, smell of the rocket fuel or the sensation of the infrared heat hitting your face even at three miles from the launch pad! In the end the artwork that I produced for the NASA Art

The program came entirely from the overpowering emotional impact of witnessing this powerful event. Photographing was a total waste of time and a major distraction.

For photographs of this eclipse, I plan to depend upon the thousands of professional images taken by people well versed in recording such a rare event that will be instantaneously available to the public via the Internet, journals, and magazines. My first priority will be to savor each aspect of the spectacle, first-hand, record it via the mind’s eye, and use all five senses to totally absorb the atmosphere.

However, if it is just too hard to resist the temptation to capture the event electronically, here are a few simple tricks that should produce positive results. Use a tripod to hold your cell phone or camera for hands-free operation. Set up and test your equipment in advance and practice the steps you will follow to confirm smooth functioning. Making your technical process as “automatic “ as possible should allow you the freedom to enjoy the eclipse on a high tech as well as sensorial level.

Finally, I would also encourage watching the eclipse with others. The more perspectives and memories you rally together, the better your chances are to notice a discrete aspect or unique interpretation of the phenomenon. After the show has come and gone it is particularly wonderful to discuss and relive the event with your fellow eclipse companions.

Then, you can all start planning for the next eclipse adventure

Greg Mort is an internationally recognized contemporary artist who is represented by the Carla Massoni Gallery, a passionate amateur astronomer and member of the NASA Shuttle Art Team who serves on the board of the Lowell Observatory. He is traveling to Madras, Oregon to view the eclipse with family and friends.