Carbondale, Illinois, will host tens of thousands of visiting skygazers. The college town will be among the best places to witness the Great American Eclipse as it whisks across the United States, the first total solar eclipse to do so since 1918.
CARBONDALE, Ill. —
During football season, a maroon mob gathers in Saluki Stadium as thousands of Southern Illinois University fans come to cheer on their hometown heroes. On Aug. 21, nearly three weeks before the first game, crowds will again pack the stadium. But all eyes will be on the sky, not the field.
By some cosmic serendipity, this college town will be among the best places to witness the Great American Eclipse as it whisks across the contiguous United States, the first total solar eclipse to do so since 1918.
The moon will block the sun and plunge everything here into an eerie darkness for more than 2 1/2 minutes. The temperature will dip. Birds will hush. And a dazzling, pearly white halo will emerge, demanding everyone’s attention.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Trump postpones Denmark trip after prime minister declines to sell him Greenland
- California to build largest wildlife crossing in world VIEW
- Shark bites woman twice while she is swimming in Hawaii bay
- Montana hailstorm kills or maims 11,000 birds
- Fact-checking Trump's remarks on the economy
Carbondale, population 26,000, will be host to tens of thousands of visiting skygazers. Padma Yanamandra-Fisher, a senior research scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, will be among them, studying the solar spectacle.
During a visit in May, she stood near the football field’s 10-yard line and looked up at the cloudless plot of blue above the bleachers where she plans to point her telescope.
“I feel like I’ll be lost observing and then forget to take the data,” she said. “It’s supposed to be such an emotional experience that part of you has to be in check enough to say: ‘Don’t think about it now. Do the work, do the work, do the work.’”
Yanamandra-Fisher will join other scientists here hoping to glean from the eclipse tantalizing insight into the sun’s mysteries.
As the eclipse nears, Carbondale is hard at work preparing for them and the tens of thousands more expected for a celestial Super Bowl.
“This Isn’t a Choice”
Three years ago, Bob Baer, a staff member at the university’s physics department, learned of Carbondale’s cosmic destiny: The city is near what NASA calls “the point of greatest duration.”
It will experience “totality” — when the moon completely overshadows the sun — for longer than almost anywhere else: a majestic 2 minutes 38 seconds. That alone would propel any town to nerd stardom, but Carbondale is exceptional. It also lies within the line of totality for America’s next total solar eclipse, on April 8, 2024.
Baer has played a central role in preparing the university for its moment under no sun. “My main pitch was, ‘This isn’t a choice,’” he said. “We’ve got a dot on a map and a crossroads on a map, so everybody’s looking at us. They’re going to come here no matter what.”
Coordinating public outreach for one of the most popular astronomical events of the century would be a major undertaking for any university. But for one without an astronomy department, it appeared particularly daunting.
So Baer and his colleagues teamed up with NASA, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the National Solar Observatory in Boulder. With the support of those institutions, they plan to entertain and educate thousands of visitors, while ensuring that scientists can take full advantage of a rare opportunity.
From $25 seats in the stadium, which holds 15,000 people, attendees will watch a NASA eclipse pregame show on the scoreboard. The university will also participate in a countrywide experiment to film totality coast to coast.
Off campus, the city has its own prep work. Carbondale, like many other cities throughout Southern Illinois, has struggled economically in recent years because of the state’s budget crisis. Officials hope the eclipse will be a boon for local businesses, and the tourism industry expects it could bring in millions of dollars.
“The biggest challenge has been trying to get people to understand how big this could be,” said Gary Williams, city manager of Carbondale.
NASA has told local officials to expect about 50,000 people, but Williams and others have warned that the community could be swarmed with many more.
“There’s no game plan, no playbook for this,” said Steven Mitchell, the city’s economic development director. “We’re completely flying blind and making up the rules as we go.”
Every available hotel room has long been booked, with one hotel selling out in March 2016, according to Cinnamon Smith, executive director of Carbondale Tourism.
Some rooms went for $499 a night with a three-night minimum, she said. People have called from Europe, Japan, Panama and Brazil seeking to snag a spot for what the city’s brochures call the “Total Eclipse of the Heartland.”
Carbondale will host a free music festival called Shadowfest, which officials will spin into an annual event leading up to the 2024 eclipse.
But much depends on the weather. If forecasts show cloudy skies in Carbondale, the crowds may not come. Alternatively, if things look dismal everywhere else nearby, then even more people might flock here.
2 minutes, 38 seconds
As an eclipse reaches totality, the sun’s wispy outer atmosphere, known as the corona, appears to spill out from behind the moon. The ethereal crown has long puzzled astronomers: It blazes at more than 1 million degrees Celsius, yet the sun’s surface burns at around a mere 5,500 degrees Celsius.
That’s counterintuitive — like getting warmer the farther away you walk from a campfire.
Normally the corona is invisible from Earth. But it appears when the moon blocks the much brighter solar disk. Totality offers scientists their best opportunity to uncover its scorching secrets.
From Saluki Stadium, Yanamandra-Fisher will investigate how light is scattered in the inner part of the corona, a property known as its polarization. The information could provide insight into how electrons inside the corona are arranged, which could help researchers understand the source of the atmosphere’s intense heat.
During her scouting trip, Yanamandra-Fisher searched for the best place to set up her equipment. She considered the university’s “dark site,” a location established away from people and bright lights. Its 10 concrete pads were designed as vibration-free platforms for telescopes, but scientists who work at the more rugged site will probably need to camp beside their equipment.
So she selected the stadium, which offers an unobstructed view of the sky while being closer to the heart of Carbondale.
“I’m projecting that the sun will be approximately there when totality hits,” she said, etching an imaginary rectangle with her finger. “If I can fit three suns across in a field of view, that would be pretty nice.”
Her telescope needs that real estate in the sky to capture intricate details of the corona, whose tendrils can stretch millions of miles from the surface. With her location picked out, she must now focus on perfecting her strategy for those 2 minutes and 38 seconds.
“You have to go through your procedure over and over,” she said, “so you don’t make mistakes.”
The stadium will also have several high-powered telescopes capable of providing unparalleled views of the partial phases of the eclipse.
The images will be recorded by a mobile solar observatory called the SUNlab that was built by Lunt Solar Systems, a telescope company in Tucson, Arizona. The observatory connects to a heliostat mounted outside, which tracks the sun and reflects light at the telescopes. The SUNlab will produce ultra-high-definition images under different wavelengths of light.
“If it’s clear, we’re going to have by far the best imaging of the eclipse that anyone is doing,” said Lou Mayo, a planetary scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the program manager for the agency’s eclipse planning.
The images will be shown first on NASA Edge, a four-hour webcast to be streamed live from Saluki Stadium. Its announcers plan to have a solar physicist nearby to explain the plasma activity the crowd may potentially see, like sunspots, solar prominences and coronal mass ejections.
Mayo predicts coverage of the eclipse could reach 1 billion people. But for the millions lucky enough to witness totality in person, like those venturing to Carbondale, he said the experience could be transformative.
“People remember where they were when Kennedy was shot; people remember the moon landing,” he said. “People will remember this eclipse.”