2 December 2016

AAS Launches Solar Eclipse Website & Mini-Grants Program

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has launched a new website, eclipse.aas.org, to help prepare the country for next year’s most anticipated celestial spectacle: the first total eclipse of the Sun to touch the US mainland since 1979 and the first to span the continent since 1918. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the AAS has also unveiled a program of small grants to fund educational activities aimed at engaging the public with the eclipse.

On Monday, 21 August 2017, a total solar eclipse will darken a roughly 70-mile-wide swath of the US from Oregon (a little after 10 am PDT) to South Carolina (a little before 3 pm EDT). Millions of citizens and visitors will have a chance to see the ethereal solar corona — the Sun’s wispy outer atmosphere — and experience “darkness at midday.” Outside this narrow path of totality, all of North America (as well as Greenland, Iceland, Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of northern South America) will have a partial solar eclipse.

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Courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com. Publication-quality version: 6 MB PNG file.

The event is being called the Great American Eclipse or All-American Eclipse because the Moon’s dark shadow crosses the entire continental US but touches no other country as it travels 8,600 miles across Earth’s surface. The eclipse presents a unique opportunity to excite people about science and connect them personally to the cosmos. Yet it also presents unique challenges: everyone in the country needs to learn how to view the eclipse safely, and communities along the path of totality need to be ready for an unprecedented influx of visitors.

To address these opportunities and challenges, the AAS has established a solar eclipse task force. Its co-chairs are Shadia R. Habbal (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy) and Angela Speck (University of Missouri, Columbia). In her quest to unravel the mysteries of the corona, Dr. Habbal has led solar-eclipse expeditions all over the world. Dr. Speck, a leader in astronomy education and outreach, will experience her first total solar eclipse next year without having to leave home, as Columbia sits squarely within the path of totality. Their colleagues on the AAS task force make up a Who’s Who of eclipse experts representing many relevant communities, including amateur and professional astronomers, educators, doctors, journalists, and government officials.

Several excellent solar-eclipse websites already exist thanks to the efforts of a handful of individual amateur and professional astronomers as well as NASA. “Rather than ‘reinvent the wheel,’” says Habbal, “eclipse.aas.org offers a modest amount of high-level information to get people started and then provides links to more detailed information on other sites. It’s a curated guide to the best and most reliable resources on solar eclipses in all media.”

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Courtesy Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest Int'l. / Wilderness Travel. Publication-quality version: 627 KB JPG file.

A total solar eclipse is about as bright as the full Moon and just as safe to look at, but the Sun at any other time, including during a partial eclipse, is dangerously bright and must be viewed through special-purpose safe solar filters. There’s a lot of confusion about this. Accordingly, the AAS task force has taken great care to publish reliable, trustworthy eye-safety information on eclipse.aas.org. The AAS’s eclipse-viewing instructions have been adopted for use by NASA and endorsed by the American Academy of Ophthalmology and American Academy of Optometry.

With funding provided by the NSF, the AAS Solar Eclipse Task Force has also issued a call for proposals for $1,000 to $5,000 grants to engage the public via eclipse-related education and outreach activities in venues such as science museums, planetariums, libraries, afterschool programs, and colleges. “Highest priority will be given to programs specifically designed to engage meaningfully with under-represented groups,” says Speck, “who often don’t imagine themselves in science careers or who believe that science is ‘not for them.’” The program is named for Julena Steinheider Duncombe (1911-2003), an outstanding astronomer and educator who started the US’s first school-lunch program for underprivileged children. For many years she published eclipse predictions for the US Naval Observatory. Several towns in Nebraska where she taught school will be in the path of the Moon’s shadow next August 21st. The deadline for grant applications is 13 January 2017.

Rick Fienberg
AAS Press Officer
+1 202-328-2010 x116, cell: +1 857-891-5649
Mike Kentrianakis
Project Manager, AAS Solar Eclipse Task Force
+1 917-770-1784 (cell)

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), established in 1899, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. The membership (approx. 8,000) also includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers, and others whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising contemporary astronomy. The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe, which it achieves through publishing, meeting organization, education and outreach, and training and professional development.