I’ve long had a personal interest in astronomy and though I’m by no means a serious enthusiast (I don’t even own a telescope), I’ve been keen to observe the occasional celestial event, often from my own back yard.
The half-century or so that I’ve been on this earth has been studded with a number of astronomical happenings that I’ve managed to catch from time to time. And The Big One, that is, No 1 on my personal ‘Bucket List’ is coming along this summer.
In all I’ve been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, three times in my life. None of the displays were especially spectacular, unfortunately. The first was a shimmering, if faint, white curtain in the sky over Caithness in northern Scotland in the 1990s. I then saw something similar from an aircraft returning over the Arctic Circle from New York. But the best was a bright green array of horizon-hugging glows and high, soaring searchlights stretching up to the zenith over our borrowed cabin at Cross Lake, Minnesota, in 2003.
A favourite book, owned as a child, would foretell celestial events far off in the future, at least to the nine-year-old who received Astronomy in Colour by Peter Lancaster Brown for Christmas 1974. The book describes the rare transits of Venus that occur in pairs a few years apart and predicted the next pairing in 2004 and 2012, a distant thirty years or more away from the boy that I was.
But that time rolled away and on 8 June 2004, there I was, projecting the sun’s disc through binoculars and a crack in my study curtains, persuading the builders I had in at the time to gaze upon the black dot – the shadow of Venus – crawling slowly across the disc, because they might not see this again in their lifetime. I’m not sure if they were impressed, but I’m glad I observed it. It’s twin – the transit in 2012 – was obscured by cloud in London and the next pair won’t be coming around until 10 December 2117. Yes, that’s a whole century away.
Patrick Moore’s Observer’s Book of Astronomy held another prediction for the young Andy. My 1970’s copy said that the next total solar eclipse visible from the UK would take place on 11 August 1999. I knew that I would be 34 by then, which felt ancient to that nine-year-old. As it happened, I hadn’t banked on having two very young children that summer and the planned trip to Cornwall to witness it never quite came off. You might know that conditions that day were hardly ideal and the partial eclipse I watched from a car park in Feltham was probably more than they saw down in Falmouth.
It was far from my first partial eclipse. The very un-scientific Old Moore’s Almanack had confidently predicted one, visible from England, for early in the morning on Sunday, 11 May 1975. I asked my Dad to wake me at six and despite heavy cloud cover, I did manage to catch a brief glimpse of it low over the eastern horizon. There had been absolutely no coverage in the media at all.
I observed one more partial solar eclipse from my old home town, on 30 May 1984, not long before I left for university. This one was early in the evening as I recall, as I remember my TV showing Liverpool playing AS Roma in the European Cup Final. (Liverpool won on penalties.) And I’ve lost count of the many lunar eclipses I’ve seen. I love that copper red and crimson hue the moon turns as the earth’s shadow falls across it. And then in 1997, from a rented cottage in rural Norfolk, I had a great view of Comet Hale-Bopp for several evenings in a row.
So this year, on 21 August in fact, I hope to finally add that elusive total solar eclipse to my list of scalps. My grown-up daughter and I are travelling to the United States to witness it. The moon’s shadow will hit the west coast of Oregon south of Portland in the morning and cross the continent in just 90 minutes or so, heading out into the Atlantic off the South Carolina coast. We hope to catch it somewhere along the way, doing our best to avoid every astronomer’s sworn enemy – the weather.
Chicago will be our jumping-off point. You can’t see it from there, but you can fly almost anywhere. And we’ve booked accommodation in Nashville, Tennessee, in Festus, Missouri, in Lusk on the plains of Wyoming and near Mitchell (Pop. 130) in the Painted Hills of Oregon. We just have to hope that our forecasters get it right and that we fly into clear skies come that weekend.
But this event will be truly unprecedented, the first Great American Eclipse of the automobile age. It’s been estimated that a hundred million people live within a day’s drive of the shadow line. And most of them don’t yet know that it’s coming.
So the weather might not be the only hazard we find ourselves up against!