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CT astronomer wants you to enjoy the eclipse safely

FILE: People use protective glasses to watch the solar eclipse along the waterfront near the Children's Museum in Boston, Aug. 21, 2017.
Boston Globe
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FILE: People use protective glasses to watch the solar eclipse along the waterfront near the Children's Museum in Boston, Aug. 21, 2017.

Central Connecticut State University geological sciences professor Kristine Larsen knows eclipses. She’s traveled the world to experience a total eclipse five times.

“I've been as far away as Australia, Egypt, China, the Faroe Islands, and Marion, Illinois, of all places for the last Eclipse,” Larsen said. “It is definitely worth it!”

Larsen is traveling to Texas this time around to experience her sixth total solar eclipse on April 8, when the moon will completely block out the sun in parts of the U.S. and New England, allowing darkness to so overtake the land that crickets can mistake daytime for night and start chirping.

The eclipse will be visible in much of America for the first time since August of 2017. NASA said in some parts of the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the total eclipse will last a maximum of four minutes and twenty-eight seconds.

“Nighty-nine percent (of the sun covered by the moon) won't do,” Larsen said. “With the sun completely eclipsed, you block out the entire bright part of the sun. And you see the sun's outer crowning glory, which is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. I've never seen a photograph do it justice.”

What the eclipse will look like in New England

Larsen said she expects Connecticut to experience 93% coverage of the sun starting at around 2:14 in the afternoon.

“It'll kind of look like a sideways or upside-down smile,” Larsen said.

For those in Connecticut who want to experience “totality” (a total eclipse), Larsen said you don’t have to go as far away as she’s going.

In New England, Caribou, Maine, Burlington, Vermont, and Lancaster, New Hampshire, will be in the path of totality. So is nearby Rochester, New York. Those areas will also start to experience the eclipse at around 2:14 p.m., with the full eclipse happening close to 4:40 p.m.

“It's a day trip,” Larsen said. “Now there will be a tremendous amount of traffic. So, you do have to plan ahead, and you'll have to get up very early and look at the weather.”

Have a bad weather backup plan

A cloudy day could certainly wreak havoc with the best laid eclipse viewing plans.

“That's one of the reasons why a lot of astronomers are going to Texas,” Larsen said. “Historically the weather forecasts are better.”

For those determined to not let the weather keep them from experiencing the eclipse, Larsen recommended checking the weather report early and often. And, she recommended being ready and able to move to a clearer location, or a nearby location that might be clearing sooner than your current location, depending on the direction of the weather pattern.

“Half of totality is a whole lot better than none of totality,” Larsen said.

Never look at an eclipse without protection

Looking with unprotected eyes directly at an eclipse can quickly do permanent damage to your eyes, Larsen said.

“Most people, if they look directly at the sun, they will realize very quickly, it's a bad idea and glance away,” Larsen said. “But you may have actually damaged some of the cells in your retina on the back of your eye. Your eyes don't have obvious pain sensors, so your eyes aren't going to necessarily go ‘Ow! Don't look! Ow!’”

Trying to look directly at an eclipse through any sort of magnifying lens is also not advisable.

“Don't ever try to use any optical device, like a camera or binoculars or anything, to look directly at the sun,” Larsen said. “Astronomers such as myself, who observe the sun, use special telescopes with special filters that block out like 99.99% of the light to make it safe.”

Viewing the eclipse safely

There are only 2 ways to safely view an eclipse, Larsen said. One way is to wear special glasses — and that doesn’t mean conventional sunglasses.

“So-called ‘sun’ glasses are really just to get rid of some of the glare on a sunny day,” Larsen said. “They have nothing to do with safely viewing a solar eclipse.”

So where does one go to get proper solar observing glasses?

“I know that a lot of the libraries in Connecticut have gotten free solar eclipse glasses through grant programs,” Larsen said. “If you go to theAmerican Astronomical Society website, the AAS, they have a whole webpage on reputable dealers to get your eclipse glasses from and what to look for. If you just go buy them at random online merchants that I will not name you can't be guaranteed of the quality.”

The second way to safely view an eclipse safely is through the use of a device called a pin-hole projector.

“You take a piece of cardboard and you poke a pinhole in it,” Larsen said. “And you let a beam of sunlight shine through the pinhole onto a second piece of cardboard or onto the ground and you will see a small image of the Sun safely projected on the ground or on your screen.”

Pin-hole projectors are easy to make yourself, she said.

“If you just Google pinhole projector, you will get 101 clever designs using everything from poster tubes to cereal boxes,” Larsen said.

Or, Larsen said, you can use anything that has holes.

“You can use that pasta strainer that you have,” Larsen said. “And again, you're not looking at the sun through the hole. That's very important. You are letting the sunlight pass safely through the pinhole onto another surface like a screen or a piece of cardboard on the ground.”

Long wait for next eclipse

There won’t be another eclipse visible in the U.S. until the year 2045, Larsen said. So, for this one, she plans on experiencing it as an eclipse fan, not as a researcher.

“I'm just going to be staring up at the sky with my mouth hanging open, like I've done every single total solar eclipse I've seen, and probably every total solar eclipse I hope to see for the rest of my life, and just enjoy the show.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.