The Science Near Me blog is a partnership between Discover magazine and ScienceNearMe.org.
In 2017, people across America turned out to watch one of the most stunning celestial events visible from Earth: a solar eclipse. An estimated 215 million Americans — 88% of the adult population, almost twice as many viewers as the Super Bowl — watched the eclipse either in person or virtually. Now, in just under a year, we’ll be seeing another eclipse cross the continental United States.
On April 8, 2024, the Sun will briefly disappear across America. A total solar eclipse will trace a path from Texas to Maine, blotting out the Sun for just over three minutes at the center of the line of totality. As a preview, a separate annular solar eclipse will be happening later this year, on October 14, from Oregon to Texas.
Eclipses happen when the moon moves in front of the Sun, blocking its light. This happens multiple times a year in different places, but each eclipse is only visible from a small portion of the Earth’s surface. There are two kinds of eclipses: total solar eclipses and annular solar eclipses. A total solar eclipse happens when the moon aligns perfectly with the Sun, blocking it from view, while during an annular eclipse the Sun is only partly obscured, leaving a bright ring around its outer edge. Total solar eclipses are visible along a narrow band called the path of totality — further away, the Sun will only be partly obscured.
Being inside the path of totality can be surreal: for a few minutes, day becomes nigh, and birds return to trees, crickets begin chirping, and the temperature drops noticeably. Above, a dark disk hangs where the Sun once was, a brilliant circle at its edges betraying hints of the Sun’s light.
Seeing an eclipse can be a magical experience, and millions will likely travel to the path of totality in 2024 to see it happen, including the so-called “umbraphiles” who chase eclipses around the world. It’s also one of the best times to get people excited about astronomy, especially those who perhaps haven’t given much thought to outer space before.
That’s why NASA's Science Activation, in partnership with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, sponsors Science Near Me partner the Night Sky Network, as well as 1,000 Eclipse Ambassadors across the country to spread knowledge, awareness and overall excitement about space in advance of the 2024 eclipse. Five hundred undergraduate students will team up with 500 volunteer eclipse enthusiasts (anyone who really loves eclipses) to take their eclipse knowledge to their communities.
The Eclipse Ambassador pairs will host events, answer questions and serve as general solar eclipse liaisons for people hoping to learn more about eclipses. Kat Troche, a member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific who helps support the Eclipse Ambassador project, says a big focus for the ambassadors will be reaching out to communities that might not typically hear from NASA.
“One of our key goals is to have folks that are in underserved neighborhoods or that work with underserved neighborhoods go into those communities and bring that science into them,” she says.
The qualifications for becoming an Eclipse Ambassador are simple: Be a U.S. resident over the age of 18 who’s either an undergrad (two-year programs and community college students welcome) or an eclipse-lover, and be ready to share your love of eclipses and astronomy with others. You can apply on the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s website through December of this year. As a bonus, there’s a stipend for undergrads, and every ambassador will be entered to win an inclusive trip to Fredericksburg, Texas in 2024 to see the total eclipse.
Eclipse Ambassadors will be going into their communities in 2024 to share information on how to safely view an eclipse, basic solar science like what the Sun is made out of and an enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in general. The goal is to show people that “STEM, especially astronomy, is not inaccessible,” Troche says. “We hope to make it as accessible as we can to these communities.”
You don’t need to be an eclipse ambassador to go see the eclipse yourself, though. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, and one that’s definitely worth seeing at least once.
Tips for Viewing the Solar Eclipse
If you’re going to see the eclipse yourself, Troche has a few quick tips. If you’re coming from far away, make your lodging reservations early, as they’re sure to book up fast.
During solar eclipses, safety comes first, so make sure you have protection for your eyes before looking straight into the Sun. Many organizations have free eclipse glasses you can get (sunglasses aren’t dark enough, so don’t use them!) For those with telescopes, make sure it has a solar filter.
If you do have a few extra eclipse glasses, be nice and don’t hoard them, Troche says. Share them with anyone who might not have gotten some.
Lastly, don’t forget to take your eclipse glasses off when the Sun does fully disappear so you can see the eclipse in all its glory. As long as the Sun is fully covered, it’s safe to look at directly. If you leave them on you won’t see anything!
There are also ways you can get involved during the eclipse. Citizen science projects from NASA and other organizations need volunteers to submit their observations of what’s happening near them before, during, and after the eclipse(s). For example, people have reported changes in animal behaviors (some spiders disassemble their webs, squirrels run into their dens, nocturnal animals emerge) and changes in temperature, clouds and wind. Learn more about how you can participate, whether you’re in the path of totality or not, on SciStarter.
Find a Star Party Near You
If you’re hoping to explore the cosmos, you don’t need to wait for a solar eclipse to do it. The stars are always up there, and there are plenty of ways to learn more about them. If you don’t have a telescope or don’t have much experience navigating the night sky, a star party is a great way to dive in.
Don’t let the name fool you — a star party has far less champagne, and far more telescopes, than you might expect. It’s typically an informal gathering of amateur astronomers who set up their telescopes in city parks or other open spaces on clear nights and invite anyone and everyone to come and observe with them. (OK: You could probably bring champagne if you wanted, just check with the organizers.)
Many local astronomy clubs will host regular star parties, many of which you can find on Science Near Me. To take part, all you need to do is show up. To get the most out of it, don’t be afraid of asking questions, Troche recommends. “Astronomers are not shy about answering as many questions as you want,” she says. “Ask, ask, ask away.”
Feel free to ask if you can look through someone’s telescope, too, Troche says. They’ll likely be more than happy to oblige. “That’s why we do what we do, because we want to share this with people,” she says.
Other than that, simply wear some comfortable shoes and be careful about shining flashlights or smartphones into anyone’s eyes to preserve their night vision.
You can find star parties and other astronomical events near you using Science Near Me. Search for “star party” using the Opportunity Finder on the homepage, and use the distance ad date filters to find one nearby. There are a number of eclipse-related activities on Science Near Me as well, including the Eclipse Soundscapes project that will record how animals behave during the event, and Globe Observer: Eclipse, which asks volunteers to monitor air temps and cloud behavior during an eclipse.
Find more STEM activities in your area using Science Near Me today!
If your organization offers events, projects or programs that invite the public to engage in STEM, add it to Science Near Me!