During 2017’s total solar eclipse, the first to cross North America since 1918, Hawaiʻi will be well represented by Institute for Astronomy astronomer Shadia Rifai Habbal and other University of Hawaiʻi scientists. When the moon completely blocks the sun, Habbal’s team of international scientists will collect data as they have done during 14 eclipses since 1995.
“Witnessing the event—which happens over an hour, when you are going from full daylight to nighttime—all of sudden you are immersed in darkness and you see this bright corona shimmering in the sky, it is something very, very unique,” Habbal says.
Solar eclipses occur when the moon is directly between the Earth and the sun. The sun is 400 times wider than the moon, but also 400 times farther away. As a result, the moon and the sun are the same size in our sky. When the moon is exactly between the Earth and the sun, the moon completely blocks the sun from view. Astronomers call this a total solar eclipse. Total eclipses last one to eight minutes in a given location, providing scientists with a golden opportunity to explore one of the mysteries of this universe.
“One of the big puzzles about the sun is that the surface temperature is about six thousand degrees. But then when you get the to corona it is several million,” Habbal explains.
To help to crack that puzzle, Habbal’s team will be using the spectrometers at five different sites to study the solar wind or gasses escaping from the sun.
“It tells us something about the whole universe and the formation of solar systems,” says Habbal. “So it’s a very profound idea and concept that we’re exploring.”
Hawaiʻi will be in a position to view only a partial eclipse around 6:35 a.m. on August 21, however, the warning not to look directly at the sun still applies.
Benjamin Boe, a graduate student studying with Habbal, says, “Don’t stare at the sun, please wear solar glasses. If not, a doable, easy solution is just take a piece of cardboard, poke a small hole in it. You can put another piece of paper behind it and project an image of the sun onto a piece of paper and that way you can see the crescent sun without actually having to look at it.”
Viewing the solar eclipse online
The public can also safely view the solar eclipse in Hilo or online. UH Hilo Instructor John Hamilton and Lecturer Marc Roberts will be observing the eclipse from the Lost River Field Station near Mackay, Idaho, one of the official NASA viewing sites. They plan on live broadcasting the eclipse via the UH Hilo YouTube channel. “Seeing a total solar eclipse is an incredible experience and we are excited to share the opportunity, even remotely, with UH students,” says Hamilton.
UH Hilo’s astronomy department has planned an event hosted by Associate Professor Heather Kaluna to view the eclipse via live feed at the Science and Technology Building on the UH Hilo campus starting at 6 a.m.
For those unable to attend the UH Hilo event, the Maunakea Observatories Astronomy Outreach Committee will broadcast the UH Hilo feed live on their website.
—By Kelli Trifonovitch