WHAT’S THE STORY?

CHAOS is threatening to mar what is predicted to be the most-watched solar eclipse in history as excitement in the US reaches stratospheric proportions.

Fears of petrol shortages, gridlock and even possible catastrophe are prompting warnings from US authorities for people to be sensible as eclipse mania takes over the country.

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With less than two months to go to the US’s first coast-to-coast total eclipse in almost 100 years, millions of people have already made plans to observe the phenomenon from prime viewing spots in the 14 states that will be blacked out.

Hotels in some cities and towns along the “path of totality” have been booked for years and flights into the affected states are packed.

Officials are now trying to put precautions in place so that the travel surge does not cause a petrol shortage and people are being warned to travel well ahead of the event so that roads don’t become blocked – or worse.

“If everyone is driving, staring up at the sky, or on the side of the road staring up at the sky, then who is looking out for each other?” asked Martin Knopp, of the Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.
 

WHERE WILL IT AFFECT?

THE path of totality stretches 2500 miles from South Carolina on the east coast to Oregon on the west, an area populated by 12.2m people. Around 200m, about two thirds of the population, reside within a day’s drive of the eclipse’s path on August 21.

It is the first of its kind in the US since 1918 and the parts of the 14 states that are within the path of totality will be thrown into a shadow that is 70 miles wide. A partial eclipse will be seen in the rest of the country, weather permitting.

Along with the public, the eclipse will be monitored by over 50 high-altitude balloons, 11 spacecraft and the astronauts on board the International Space Station.

“Never before will a celestial event be viewed by so many and explored from so many vantage points – from space, from the air and from the ground,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, of Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate.

During a total eclipse, the moon lines up perfectly to fully obscure the sun, resulting in “totality”. In a partial eclipse, the moon and the sun are not perfectly aligned and only part of the sun is blocked while, during an annular eclipse, alignment is perfect but the moon is too far away from Earth to obscure the sun completely.
 

WHAT HAPPENS?

AS the moon slowly obscures more and more of the sun and just a small sliver of light remains, watchers might see “Baily’s Beads”, caused by the last rays of sunlight streaming through lunar valleys. Next the beads dissolve into one final “diamond” in the sky and then the soft wisps of the solar corona surround a huge hole where the sun used to be. Watchers might notice a temperature drop, birds flying home to their nests, and some report an eerie feeling in the air as they stand in a strange twilight, while a sunset glows on the horizon all around. Finally, totality comes to an end as the events occur in reverse order.

“These bodies come into alignment in a cosmic moment that we’re all part of,” said Zurbuchen. “These moments when nature speaks to us in an emotional way sometimes come loud like thunderstorms, like hurricanes, earthquakes but this one will be silent. All of a sudden day will turn into night and back again and the world around us, animals, will react.”

To inspire new stargazers, Nasa has launched a public outreach programme in connection with the eclipse.

“Eclipse 2017 provides an incredible opportunity to engage the entire nation and the world, inspiring learners of all ages who have looked to the sky with curiousity and wonder,” said Steven Clarke, of Nasa’s heliophysics division.
 

WILL IT BE SEEN HERE?

THE total eclipse is calculated to last from 20 seconds up to two minutes 40 seconds, depending on where it is being watched. The path of totality is more than 2,000 miles long, going through deserts, forests, national parks and cities. It will be visible from certain points in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.

The path of totality includes Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska, which is a replica of Stonehenge built in 1987 with cars instead of stone slabs. The creator of this unique sculpture, Jim Reinders, built it as a memorial to his dad. Thirty-nine automobiles were placed to assume the same proportions as Stonehenge with the circle measuring approximately 96 feet in diameter. A 1962 Cadillac marks the heel stone and it attracts around 60,000 people each year.

UK astronomers in the UK will not be able to view the total eclipse but will have the chance to see a partial eclipse over the British Isles as it will be visible in parts of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, from around 7.35pm BST onwards on August 21.

However, even if it is not cloudy sky watchers in the UK will have difficulty seeing much as only four per cent of the moon will obscure the sun.

A live stream of the total eclipse will be broadcast on Exploratorium.edu.