In Illinois, This College Town Won’t Be Eclipsed By August’s Celestial Event – 90.5 WESA

 In Science
By now you likely know an eclipse is happening Monday, Aug. 21. There have been countless stories about the celestial event, how to view it, the science behind it and hotels that were booked more than a year in advance. But even with all that coverage, you might not have heard details about a small town in deep Southern Illinois that is expected to almost triple in size just for the eclipse.

That small town is Carbondale. Located approximately two hours east of the Mississippi River, and founded around the railroad industry, it’s home to musicians like Shawn Colvin, the first “Bucky Dome” house — and the only one that architect R. Buckminster Fuller ever lived in — and a university with a Saluki — an Egyptian running dog — as its mascot.

Not everyone knows this much about Carbondale, but I grew up there, so I guess I’m a little biased.

About two years ago, our friends who still live there started talking about an upcoming total solar eclipse and how everyone was bristling with excitement and planning how they could contribute to the celebration. I immediately knew that this would be a big deal for an otherwise small town. The last total solar eclipse to cross the contiguous United States was in 1979.

While some people in Carbondale found out about the eclipse recently, there are others like Bob Baer who has had the event on his radar for years. Baer works in the physics department at Southern Illinois University and plans public astronomy events. He said he was approached about three years ago and asked to join a large eclipse research effort with Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse experiment, otherwise known as Citizen CATE.

Part of the early research involved Baer going to Indonesia in 2016 with an SIU student to collect data on the sun’s corona from a total solar eclipse. That was the first one he saw.

Baer talked with me about his experience and said after he set up his equipment there, he was able to watch as the pure white halo formed around the sun’s corona.

As the sky got darker in the minutes leading up to totality, he said, things started to get weird. He called it “eerie, like just before a storm hits.” As the color of the sky started to change, the nightlife woke up and got loud. Crickets started chirping, other bugs came out, and the birds and roosters acted as if they were going back to the roost. This might sound like a cacophonous mess — but then totality hits.

“It was just beautiful,” he said. “It was kind of a shock. Seeing it is the best way I can describe it, because I didn’t know what to expect and you really can’t miss it. You look up, and there’s this beautiful corona that looks like no other astronomical object. It is literally like two to three times the size of the moon. It’s so big.”

But that big moment only happens if you’re in the path of totality, an approximately 60-mile wide band across the U.S. from Oregon down to South Carolina. If you’re not in the path, you will still see a partial solar eclipse, but it won’t be as dramatic.

“In that path, they see totality, and that means they’ll actually see the partial phases too — if they use those glasses — leading up to totality. When totality hits, you can take the glasses off and look at the corona directly and that’s the unique part of it,” Baer said. “Areas in the path of totality actually get dark and you get all those cool effects with animals and nature doing different things, and you get to see the corona. If you’re just outside the path, even a few miles, you will not see totality, so that’s why being in the path is really important.”

It’s so important that NASA is also going to have a team in Carbondale, along with Citizen CATE, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the Louisiana Space Grant Consortium — which will have different activities and experiments happening leading up to and during the eclipse. In total, the town is expecting 50,000 people to come and experience totality for almost two minutes and 40 seconds — the longest duration throughout the entire path.

One main viewing area is Saluki Stadium, where an all-day event will take place with a broadcast of live footage of the eclipse, the launch of high-altitude balloons and Planetary Radio’s Mat Kaplan will host discussions and explaining what’s happen as totality nears.

Growing up, my family always went to university football and basketball games. The aluminum bleachers turned into a sea of maroon and the crowds cheered. For the eclipse, it will be just as packed, but no one is going to be looking at the field for entertainment, except maybe when the Marching Salukis, SIU’s marching band, plays.

Lou Mayo, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will also be at the stadium the day of the eclipse. He’s part of the team working with Baer and others at the university to make sure everything goes well. When I talked with him in his office, and complimented him on his solar system socks, his excitement filled the room.

Mayo has seen a lot of celestial events, but a total solar eclipse isn’t one of them. When he traveled to Paris to see one, cloudy skies obscured the view. He reiterated that preparation is key for those hoping to see totality this summer. Mayo said he’s making sure all three of his daughters see the eclipse in Carbondale, and he booked the hotel rooms two and a half years ago. It’s a good thing he did, too.

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