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Ways to ready for the solar eclipse

When my husband and I lead astronomy events at High Bridge Trail State Park, I occasionally ask participants a tricky question: can you name the star closest to Earth?

Some people guess Sirius. That isn’t the right answer, but I’m willing to award a partial point for a good try.

Sirius is the closest star that can be seen in the night sky from our latitude. It’s also the brightest. Sirius, located about eight light years away, shines throughout the winter and spring months. If you missed its most recent march across the night sky, you can start looking again during December evenings.

Other common guesses are Alpha Centauri or one of its companions, Proxima Centauri. This grouping of stars, which is visible from the Southern hemisphere, never rises above the horizon for people viewing the sky from Farmville.

At a distance of just over four light years, however, the Alpha Centauri system is practically in our backyard, at least astronomically speaking. Although it qualifies as the star system that is closest to our own solar system, it still isn’t the right answer to my question.

The right answer, the closest star to the Earth, isn’t visible during the night at all. It’s out during the day. It’s what makes day, day. We call this special star the sun.

Using the speed of light as a way to measure distances helps put things in perspective. The light that arrives from the Alpha Centauri system journeys for four years to get to earth. Light from our sun, which is about 93 million miles away, arrives in eight minutes. Light is blazingly fast. Measured by its speed, the sun is indeed close by. But, if you could drive your car on an extraterrestrial highway at a steady 70 miles per hour and never stop for gas or food or even to stretch your legs, the trip would take you more than 150 years.

This amazing star has a few stunts planned for the days and months ahead. First, for those of us watching from the northern hemisphere, it will reach its highest point in the sky on June 21. This marks the astronomical beginning of summer.

The sun’s most spectacular performance, however, will be a vanishing act on Aug. 21 when a total eclipse of the sun will be visible across the United States. This summer’s event will be the first total solar eclipse visible from the continental U.S. since 1979, and viewing for that one was limited to the Northwestern states and Canada.

The coming eclipse will traverse the U.S. beginning from a point on the Pacific coast in Oregon. It will move eastward toward Charleston, South Carolina and the Atlantic coast.

The band of totality, where the moon will completely block the sun’s photosphere, will be about 100 miles wide.

People who have an opportunity to travel to a location within that band will experience night-like darkness for a couple of minutes during the day. Outside the area of totality, people in the U.S. will see a partial eclipse. Here in Farmville, the sun will appear about 85 percent blocked. It won’t get dark, but people using appropriate eye protection will be able to see the moon blot out a good portion of the sun.

If you’d like to see the eclipse, keep in mind that you should never look directly at the sun without appropriate eye protection. The use of inappropriate, inadequate or damaged equipment can injure your eyes and even cause permanent loss of vision.

To help you prepare for the solar eclipse, High Bridge Trail State Park will be hosting a special day-time astronomy event dedicated to solar observing on June 24 at 11 a.m. My husband and I will set up some special equipment at the center of High Bridge so that you can take a look at our wonder-filled Sun. We’ll also talk about ways you can get ready to view the eclipse safely, including how to make and use a pinhole camera. I hope you’ll join us as we learn more about the amazing star that anchors our solar system.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. Her email address is kbellenir@PierPress.com.