Saturday 24 February 2018

Historic eclipse turns day into night across the US

The moon covers the sun during a total eclipse in the United States (AP/Ted S Warren)
The moon covers the sun during a total eclipse in the United States (AP/Ted S Warren)
People wear protective glasses as they watch the beginning of the solar eclipse (AP/Don Ryan)

Millions of Americans gazed in wonder through telescopes, cameras and protective glasses as the moon blotted out the sun in the first full-blown solar eclipse to sweep the US from coast to coast in nearly a century.

"It's really, really, really, really awesome," said nine-year-old Cami Smith as she watched the fully eclipsed sun from a lane near her grandfather's home in Oregon.

The temperature dropped, birds went quiet and stars came out in the middle of the day as the line of darkness raced 2,600 miles across the continent in about 90 minutes, bringing forth shouts and screams of delight.

In Boise, Idaho, where the sun was more than 99% blocked, people clapped and whooped, and the street lights came on briefly.

It was the most observed and photographed eclipse in history, with many Americans staking out prime viewing spots and settling onto blankets and garden chairs to watch, especially along the path of totality - the line of deep shadow created when the sun is completely obscured except for the thin ring of light known as the corona.

The shadow - a corridor just 60 to 70 miles wide - came ashore in Oregon and then began travelling diagonally across the heartland to South Carolina, with darkness lasting only around two to three minutes in any one spot.

The rest of North America was treated to a partial eclipse, as were Central American and the top of South America.

With 200 million people within a day's drive from the path of totality, towns and parks saw big crowds. Skies were clear along most of the route, to the relief of those who feared cloud cover would spoil the once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Nasa reported 4.4 million people were watching its TV coverage midway through the eclipse, the biggest livestream event in the space agency's history.

"It's like nothing else you will ever see or ever do," said veteran eclipse-watcher Mike O'Leary of San Diego, who set up his camera along with hundreds of other amateur astronomers gathered in Casper, Wyoming.

"It can be religious. It makes you feel insignificant, like you're just a speck in the whole scheme of things."

Astronomers were giddy with excitement. A solar eclipse is considered one of the grandest of cosmic spectacles.

Nasa solar physicist Alex Young said the last time people had a connection like this to the heavens was during man's first flight to the moon, on Apollo 8 in 1968.

The first, famous Earthrise photo came from that mission and, like this eclipse, showed us "we are part of something bigger".

With a half hour to go before totality, Nasa's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, enjoyed the moon's "first bites out of the sun" from a plane flying over the Oregon coast and declared it "just an incredible view".

"I'm about to fight this man for a window seat," Mr Lightfoot said, referring to a fellow Nasa official.

The Earth, moon and sun line up perfectly every one to three years, briefly turning day into night for a sliver of the planet. But these sights normally are in no man's land, like the vast Pacific or Earth's poles.

The moon has not thrown this much shade at the US since 1918, during the country's last coast-to-coast total eclipse.

In fact, the US mainland has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1979 - and even then, only five states in the north-west experienced total darkness.

Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois saw the longest stretch of darkness: two minutes and 44 seconds.

The next total solar eclipse in the US will be in 2024. The next coast-to-coast one will not be until 2045.

AP

Press Association

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