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Look up safely: UK experts offer insights on April 8 total solar eclipse


By Jenny Wells-Hosley

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 29, 2024) — On Monday, April 8,sky gazers across North America will be treated to a total solar eclipse. During a solar eclipse, the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, casting a shadow on the planet and temporarily blocking the sun's light. Weather permitting, this event creates an awe-inspiring display as the sky darkens and the sun's corona becomes visible.

Like the rest of the continent, the University of Kentucky and Lexington are gearing up for this rare natural phenomenon. However, it's important to note that Lexington will only experience approximately 97% coverage. While that might sound good enough, experts in the UK Department of Physics and Astronomy say the goal of every eclipse chaser is to travel to a clear spot within the path of totality — the narrow strip of land where the moon completely, 100% obscures the sun.

“A totally eclipsed sun is a visual experience like no other,” said Tim Knauer, manager of the MacAdam Student Observatory on campus. “There is a crown of light surrounding the Sun that is a million times dimmer than the Sun’s surface. It cannot be observed while any part of the surface is uncovered.”

But with unpredictable spring weather, and anticipated traffic issues, it’s understandable why the UK and Lexington community would prefer to stay put. For those who stay in Central Kentucky — outside of totality — experts say the eclipse will still offer a noteworthy experience.

In Lexington, the partial eclipse will begin at 1:51 p.m. EDT and end at 4:24 p.m. EDT.

“As time goes by, more and more of the sun's disk will be covered until 3:09 p.m. when nearly 97% will be covered,” said Tom Troland, UK professor of astronomy. “At that point, the landscape will be somewhat darker. This effect will be just as noticeable even if it is cloudy.”

If weather allows, UK Physics and Astronomy will host a total solar eclipse viewing party — with free eclipse glasses (while supplies last) — from 2-4:15 p.m. Monday, April 8, at Alumni Commons on campus. The UK community and public are invited to come out and safely view the partial eclipse.

Safe viewing

Experts strongly emphasize the importance of proper eyewear and safety precautions when viewing the sun during a solar eclipse. Staring directly at the sun, even during a partial eclipse, can cause serious and permanent damage to the eyes. Even with 97% coverage, looking at the eclipse without proper eyewear can be extremely dangerous.

“With only 3-4% of the solar surface visible (in Lexington), the problem is even worse because the darker environment will cause the eye’s pupils to expand, letting in even more light than is typical,” Knauer said.

Knauer said it's crucial to use specialized solar viewing glasses or solar filters to protect the eyes.

“These glasses are designed to block out the sun's intense light, allowing observers to safely view the eclipse without risking eye injury.”

A limited supply of these glasses will be available at the campus event, but to ensure you will have a pair on hand, Knauer recommends getting some of your own. When buying solar viewing glasses, make sure they meet proper standards. Check to see that they are labeled “ISO 12312-2” (sometimes written as “ISO 12312-2:2015”). Also use caution when purchasing these glasses from unverified sources, as counterfeit products may not provide adequate protection. Reliable vendors include Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics and others recommended by the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

And even if you don’t have glasses, Knauer says it is very easy and safe to witness the eclipse using inexpensive, homemade devices. For example, creating a pinhole in a piece of paper will allow the sun’s light to shine through, projecting the image of the eclipse onto a piece of white paper. Additionally, small gaps in the leaves of a tree will fill the sidewalk with shadow images of the sun, offering a fascinating way to view the progression of the eclipse.

The AAS also offers more information on creating and using homemade devices, as well as a comprehensive safety summary, here.

A once-in-a-lifetime event

While total solar eclipses occur somewhere in the world about once per year, each has its own path of totality, covering a very small fraction of the surface of the Earth. 

“Statistically, you have to wait several centuries between successive total solar eclipses at one location,” Troland said. “The last total eclipse visible in Lexington was in 1869; the next one is in 2153.”

Many people remember the total solar eclipse that swept through Western Kentucky in 2017. Lexington experienced around 95% coverage then. 

"It is just a freak thing that we will have had two such eclipses in a seven-year period," Troland said. "The next total solar eclipse across the U.S. will be on Aug. 12, 2045."

Learn more about the upcoming eclipse (and eclipses in general) in a Kentucky SkyTalk presentation by Troland from March 14 in the video above.