Has school planning begun at your house? Whenever you look over your calendar, keep in mind that within the next year, two solar eclipses will be visible throughout the United States: an annular eclipse on October 14, 2023, and a total eclipse on April 8, 2024. Though partial eclipses will occur from time to time, nothing like these events will be visible in the contiguous US again for over 20 years. In other words, there will never be a better year to study solar eclipses in your homeschool!
Types of solar eclipses
In case you need a refresher, a solar eclipse occurs when the moon crosses between the sun and the earth at an angle which blocks out part—or rarely, all—of the sun. When the sun, moon, and earth are in close but not perfect alignment with your location, you will experience a partial eclipse. The sun will appear dimmer, and through special sunglasses, you can see it as some form of crescent.
If the heavenly bodies are in perfect alignment—which only occurs in a comparatively narrow path (about 300 miles wide)—you will see either an annular or a total eclipse. The former occurs when the moon is at or near its farthest point from earth, while the latter occurs when the moon is closer. During an annular eclipse, the sun is mostly blocked by the moon, but the outer edge is still visible, creating an effect known as “the ring of fire.” During a total eclipse, the moon completely blocks the sun, leaving only the sun's corona (outer atmosphere) visible, and resulting in twilight-like darkness.
Why is this worth noting on your calendar? You may remember the “Great American Eclipse” of August 2017. If you saw this as a partial eclipse, you'll likely remember looking through eclipse glasses or seeing funny shadows in the half-covered sun. A partial eclipse is certainly still interesting and worth the purchase of eclipse glasses to get a better view. If you were able to view the totality, however, this was probably an experience you will never forget. My family and I made a trip into the “path of totality” to see the 2017 eclipse, and it was one thousand percent worth it. We kept watch through our glasses as the moon slowly crept across the face of the sun (a process which took about an hour and a half), and as the sunlight suddenly went from dim to a tiny shimmer to completely dark, the kids went absolutely wild. It was one of the most spectacular things our family has ever experienced, and I began planning for 2024 almost immediately.
Where to watch the eclipse
Now for the important question: Is my location in the path of totality? You can view a wide map of both the 2023 and 2024 eclipses here to see whether you may be close. For a more detailed view, you can look up your location on the interactive map for 2023 here or for 2024 here. If you are not close to these paths but are willing to travel, you can use these maps to try to find a good location within the path. For example, we are not close to either path in North Carolina, but we plan to visit in 2024 with some relatives near Austin, Texas.
If you decide to make such a trip, there are a few things to consider. First, if you go near to the path of totality but not quite within it, you will not get the experience of full darkness and coverage of the sun. It is worth traveling a few extra miles to get within the actual path. Also, the closer you are to the center of the path, the longer the full eclipse will last. This is true for both the width of the path (from side to side) and the length of the path (from beginning to end of where the moon's shadow travels). The very center of the path is somewhere in Mexico, where the eclipse will last for a maximum of about 4 and a half minutes. However, it is more worthwhile to get to the middle width of the path as opposed to the length. The longest eclipse duration on the southern border of the US will only be about a minute different from that of locations in the north, but being on the very edge of the path versus the center may be the difference between an eclipse that lasts 4 minutes and one that lasts only seconds.
Things to think about
Another thing to consider is the weather. If the sky tends to be overcast in a particular city, you may not get a good view of the eclipse. We were very fortunate to see the full eclipse in 2017 because the sky was rather overcast; folks only a few miles away said they didn't get a break in the clouds at the right time and couldn't see what we could!
Finally, you will want to make sure you have appropriate solar eclipse glasses (NASA approved!). These are much darker and more reflective of harmful rays than normal sunglasses, allowing you to see the sun better and protect your eyes from harmful rays. I made several mistakes with this step last time: first waiting too late, then ordering non-approved glasses, then forgetting to pack the appropriate glasses for our trip!!! Fortunately, I had ordered and packed a sheet of the same reflective material used to make the glasses, so I was able to improvise. But if you plan to view either of these eclipses in any measure, I recommend ordering glasses ASAP.
If you are unable to travel to get a better view of one of these upcoming eclipses, remember that you can still see a partial eclipse anywhere in the contiguous US! You can use the interactive maps posted above to see what percent of the sun will appear to be covered from your location. Simply type in your city, click on the pop-up to see your city information, and look for the “Magnitude” column. If you will be in the path of totality, follow the same instructions (except look for the “Duration” column) to find how long the eclipse will last in your chosen city.
For more information about what to expect for each eclipse, here are a couple of good articles for the 2023 annular and the 2024 total eclipse. I hope this information can get you started on your way toward an amazing family experience!
Photo credit: All photos are courtesy of the author.