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Idaho gears up for astronomy ‘in your face’ during Aug. 21 total solar eclipse

Eclipse 101: Straight from a Boise State professor to you

Brian Jackson, a professor in Boise State's physics department talks about the total solar eclipse, the rare celestial event that will happen Aug. 21, 2017, casting the entire middle of Idaho, including the Treasure Valley, in deep shadow in the m
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Brian Jackson, a professor in Boise State's physics department talks about the total solar eclipse, the rare celestial event that will happen Aug. 21, 2017, casting the entire middle of Idaho, including the Treasure Valley, in deep shadow in the m

The total solar eclipse coming up on Aug. 21 is months away. But that’s still not a lot of time to get ready, considering an eclipse like this hasn’t happened in the Gem State since 1979 and won’t happen again until 2136. Excitement is already running high at Idaho schools, universities, libraries and more. Towns across the eclipse path are preparing for what will likely be thousands of visitors.

Brian Jackson, assistant professor in the physics department at Boise State, has fielded calls from around the county and the world for months, he said. While Boise and the Treasure Valley aren’t in the dead center of the shadow, they’re close to it — close enough that it will look like dusk in the middle of a summer morning.

“It will be dark enough that you’ll be able to see the stars,” Jackson said.

This is a rare astronomical event that you can’t ignore. Even if you’re just driving down the freeway, you’ll have to turn your headlights on. This is astronomy ‘in your face.’

Matt Penn, astronomer, National Solar Observatory

The eclipse will begin that Monday morning at around 10 a.m. It will last about two-and-a-half hours. The darkest point in Boise — when the moon travels in front of the sun, completely obscuring its glow — will be at around 11:30 a.m. and will last a couple minutes.

Jackson has already started a round of public talks about the eclipse, recently at Flying M Coffee Garage in Nampa when he fielded questions from a packed house. He has other talks planned, including in places like the Stanley Community Library that are directly in the eclipse path.

Jackson has started a fundraiser through Boise State’s crowdfunding platform, Pony Up. He’s trying to raise $5,000 by March 6 to travel the state to hold eclipse programs in several towns through libraries, astronomy clubs and museums. In addition to talking about the eclipse, he’ll give away free eclipse glasses for safe viewing. A $10 donation to the Pony Up campaign will get you five pairs of glasses, mailed to your home. A $250 donation will get you glasses as well as a VIP stargazing event for you and a guest with Jackson.

Hoping for the best, planning for the best

Organizations, including the libraries in Caldwell and Nampa and Treasure Valley Community College are partnering with Jackson to set up public lectures in their communities. Even the Agency for New Americans, one of the agencies that resettles refugees in the Treasure Valley, now has stepped up as a partner. Jackson had initially suggested that some agency clients might like to attend the monthly stargazing events he hosts throughout the year at Boise State.

“I knew a lot of people who would like to be involved with something like that,” said Julie Bayard, AmeriCorps volunteer manager for the agency. “We have people coming in from so many different backgrounds. And so many of them love science.”

Those discussions grew into discussions about the eclipse and having Jackson create a program for new arrivals.

“We can get pretty bogged down around here,” said Bayard. The eclipse program will be a break from the usual for clients.

Wil Overgaard, superintendent of the Weiser School District, is also working with Jackson on public programs. Weiser will be directly in the eclipse path.

“We just dug out of the snow. We’ve had our share of distractions,” said Overgaard.

But he’s part of the Weiser Eclipse Committee, a group of city leaders who have been meeting regularly to “make sure we’re talking to each other to get ready,” he said.

Host to the annual National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest and Festival since 1953, Weiser is used to big crowds, said Overgaard, but he expects the eclipse will bring even more people to town. The city will host a multi-day eclipse festival.

“We’re trying to get eclipse glasses with a special Weiser logo,” said Overgaard.

Weiser is among the local cities and towns in the eclipse path that have had its lodgings booked for months. Redfish Lake Lodge near Stanley got its first inquiry about reservations for Aug. 21 in 2005. The lodge is booked for the eclipse. Rexburg, too, is an eclipse hot spot. At the beginning of March, AirBnB had just over 20 rooms and homes left there during the eclipse, many renting for thousands of dollars. One owner was offering a large camper — able to sleep seven — in Rigby for $719 a night (though that does include fees, access to a BBQ grill, fire pit and your choice of sodas).

In Weiser, Overgaard and others are working on a plan to open local school grounds for limited tent camping. A principal at the high school and his students are setting up a website, still in the works, where campers can make reservations.

Overgaard’s only worry is “getting that rare cloud cover or severe fire that creates haze in the valley. You just don’t know. But we’re going to hope for the best. And plan for the best,” he said.

Citizen scientists in Weiser

Matt Penn, associate astronomer at the National Solar Observatory in New Mexico, could have gone anywhere to watch eclipse 2017. But he’s chosen Weiser.

“That area is one of the best places to observe the eclipse in terms of what the climate predicts, looking at long-term trends,” said Penn. “That’s one reason I wanted to go there. And it’s really just fun to work with all of these people. A real pleasure to see so many people excited. Astronomy isn’t usually such a big deal.”

Penn leads the Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse experiment, also known as CATE. The citizen scientist project has enlisted volunteers to set up at the 60 or so designated sites across the entire U.S. eclipse path, including Weiser. They will use special equipment provided by CATE through grants and donations to chart and photograph the eclipse. The CATE project will compile all of those images into one continuous view of the solar happening. Students and teachers from Weiser High School will work as CATE volunteers. One benefit of participating is that the school district will get to keep the equipment, said Penn, which includes a telescope, camera and more.

CATE is still accepting volunteers, said Penn, but anyone joining now will have to buy their own equipment. (That would cost under $4,000.) Penn expects a preliminary eclipse video of all the images captured from across the United States will likely be available later in the day on Aug. 21.

Penn said scientist colleagues from NASA are also heading to Weiser for the eclipse. They’ll use new infrared detectors to measure the solar surface and look at the sun’s atmosphere.

The eclipse is likely to affect everyone, whether they’re eclipse-crazy or not, said Penn.

“This is a rare astronomical event that you can’t ignore. Even if you’re just driving down the freeway, you’ll have to turn your headlights on. This is astronomy ‘in your face.’”

Donate to Pony Up at Boise State, connect with CATE and see when the eclipse will hit your house

▪  The Pony Up fundraiser ended March 6. (For more see ponyup.boisestate.edu).

But donors giving $10 or more to the campaign after the deadline can still receive eclipse shades. Contact Boise State’s Cara Walker at 208-426-1330 or carawalker@boisestate.edu for information.

Donations will still be accepted after the deadline. Free eclipse glasses will be available at Boise State’s public eclipse programs while supplies last.

▪  Learn more about the Citizen Science Center CATE project online at citizensciencecenter.com.

▪  Check out a cool Google interactive eclipse map that lets you type in any address to see exactly when the eclipse will hit you at: http://xjubier.free.fr/en/ site_pages/solar_eclipses/TSE_2017_GoogleMapFull.html (Note, times listed are Universal Time. Subtract seven hours for Mountain Standard Time).

▪  Has all of this eclipse talk awakened a latent love for all things astral? Brian Jackson and the physics department at Boise State University host a free public astronomy program on the first Friday of every month at 7:30 p.m. in the Multi-Purpose Classroom Building, room 101. Talks are followed by stargazing, weather permitting.

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