COLUMBUS — Tom Burns last saw a total eclipse of the sun 26 years ago on a cruise ship off Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
Once the moon swallowed the sun, night fell prematurely, temperatures dipped, stars appeared, and the sun’s gaseous outer atmosphere revealed itself as a silvery, wispy halo around a hole in the sky where the sun had been.
The other astrophysicists and astronomers on deck with Burns stopped fiddling with expensive devices brought onboard to capture the rare celestial event.
“There they were, ignoring their equipment, staring up at the sky with tears running down their cheeks,” said Burns, director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory. “If you can get that reaction out of research professionals, then you know you’ve got something good. It is beautiful beyond measure.”
On Aug. 21, millions will get the chance to witness another solar eclipse; this one will slide coast to coast across the United States for the first time in 99 years.
With a limited amount of time before the so-called Great American Eclipse, some central Ohioans are scrambling to firm up travel plans to the eclipse’s path of totality, a 70-mile-wide streak from Oregon in the northwest to South Carolina in the southeast. In the path, darkness will fall in the afternoon for as long as 2 minutes, 40 seconds.
Anyone who can’t make the trip shouldn’t pout: Everyone in every state will be able to observe a partial eclipse. In Columbus, the partial eclipse will peak about 2:30 p.m., when the moon covers 86.3 percent of the sun. It will be safely visible only with special eye protection.
“You’re going to see an odd-looking sun with a chunk missing from it,” said Mike Fisher, an astronomer and Columbus State Community College professor.
About 500 million people across the U.S., Canada and Mexico can watch the eclipse for the two to three hours it lasts.
Luckily for Ohioans, they will be in good position in less than seven years for another total-eclipse sighting. On April 8, 2024, an eclipse is expected to slide on a diagonal from Mexico to Maine — grazing Columbus and going right over Cleveland.
Still, considering that a successful eclipse viewing hinges entirely on clear skies, people shouldn’t blow off this year’s eclipse, Burns said.
“People keep saying, ‘I’ll wait for the one in 2024,‘” he said, “but this really is a once-in-a-life experience.”
Most Americans live within a day’s drive of the path of totality, so scientists and citizens alike are expected to clog routes across the country leading to the eclipse’s bull’s-eye path. And for good reason.
It’s an eerie phenomenon, said Paul Sutter, an Ohio State University astrophysicist and COSI’s chief scientist. During a total eclipse, it will be so convincingly dark that street lights triggered by electric eyes will turn on and birds will begin chirping nighttime songs.
“It is an otherworldly experience,” he said.
The event is so rare that many local astronomers will be catching a total eclipse for the first time — despite entire careers spent looking up at the sky.
Burns is voyaging to Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho for the event. Brad Peterson, an Ohio State emeritus professor of astronomy, will take in the sight from Blairsville, Georgia.
Fisher and his wife will witness their first total eclipse from Harriman, Tennessee.
“If you’re an astronomer and you’re not going to go see this, there’s something wrong with you,” Fisher said.
For Ohioans, the shortest possible road trip into the eclipse’s path of totality would take them to Kentucky or Tennessee. Some are headed there as a group, such as the 50 people who will be on a COSI-guided bus trip to Nashville, the largest city along the path. Others are forging their own paths: Bryan Vehonsky, 32, of Grandview Heights, plans to drive to Greenville, South Carolina, with his girlfriend.
“It reminds us how small we are in the big scheme of things,” he said.
Traffic is expected to slow to a crawl in the hours leading up the event’s peak, turning highways into parking lots. Hotels along the path of totality have been booked up for weeks and months. Vehonsky, who booked his lodging four months ago, said that even in March, hotel prices were easily edging up toward $300 a night.
Jeremy Funk, of Mount Vernon, made reservations a year ago for campgrounds at Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park in Kentucky.
On Aug. 21, Funk and a team of Knox County students plan to release space balloons that will capture video of the event from 100,000 feet in the air as part of a NASA-sponsored livestream of the eclipse.
“I don’t think any of us fully understand the gravity of what we’re about to witness,” he said.
In Columbus, the partial eclipse will start around 1 p.m., peak about 2:30 p.m., and end around 4 p.m. And there will be celebrations of the celestial spectacle across town.
From noon to 4 p.m., COSI is sponsoring viewing stations with activities and free solar-eclipse glasses at the museum, Land-Grant Brewing Co., Easton Town Center and dozens of Columbus Metro Library and Metro Parks locations.
BrewDog’s DogTap taproom in Canal Winchester is hosting an eclipse celebration and serving space-themed specials.
Members of the Central Ohio Astronomical Society will be on hand at an eclipse-watching event at Dawes Arboretum in Newark, where the Works Museum is also hosting a viewing event.
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