Where are you taking the kids on Aug. 21? We're not talking about taking them to the first day of kindergarten, high school or to college, or even on a last-gasp summer getaway before that special school year starts.
No, we're talking about a different kind of milestone, but one equally memorable -- the 2017 total solar eclipse, something that happens only rarely in this country. It's an event they'll remember all their lives, and should be good for many science projects to come.
This is the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse will occur across the entire continental United States, NASA reports.
In case you need to brush up on your astronomy, a total eclipse occurs when the moon moves right in front of the sun, covering it completely for a very short time, darkening the whole sky, allowing you to look directly into the sun (but only when it's completely covered). To safely look when the sun isn't completely eclipsed, you must use special solar viewing glasses. (Stars come out, the horizon glows with a 360-degree sunset, the temperature drops, and day turns into night. "It's one of the most beautiful things you can ever see on earth," says eclipse2017.org.
Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, are not safe for looking at the sun, NASA warns, except during the few minutes of the total eclipse. For more information on viewing safety, visit:https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety.
What's the big deal? Isn't there an eclipse somewhere on earth every year? Yes, but that doesn't stop committed eclipse chasers from traveling the globe to watch the show. Thousands of people travel long distances, in fact, to be in the "path of totality," the strip of land about 70 miles wide or so stretching across 14 states from central Oregon through South Carolina.
A million people are expected to visit Oregon, says Travel Oregon spokesman Allison Keeney, noting there are "few if any remaining hotels." (Check here.) You won't have much luck in Nashville, either. The city and surrounding county is expecting in the neighborhood of 75,000 people with hotels sold out for Sunday Aug. 20, said Heather Middleton, vice president of public relations for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.
The states with the largest increase in hotel searches on Hotels.com, when compared to this time last year, are Nebraska (325 percent), Kansas (more than 200 percent), Missouri (nearly 160 percent), Idaho (nearly 135 percent) and Kentucky (more than 130 percent). But there are hotel deals -- if you are willing to drive to where the eclipse will be -- starting at $141 a night, according to Hotels.com's deals page.
(Download the free app and you can immediately see where you are in relation to the eclipse. There are maps on www.eclipse2017.org that will show you exactly where you need to be to be in the path of totality and see the total eclipse.)
Often times, it's necessary to travel to very remote locales -- think Mongolia or Antarctica -- for the privilege of seeing a total eclipse.
No wonder people are flocking to easily accessible American cities and towns. Official viewing areas have been set up by the local communities in the path. For more information on eclipse activities and viewing safety, visit https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov.
Is it worth upending your schedule for something that will last just two minutes? Only you can decide. Clearly it's a unique opportunity to get the kids engaged in science and the environment. "Eclipse 2017 provides an incredible opportunity to engage the entire nation and the world, inspiring learners of all ages who have looked to the sky with curiosity and wonder," said Steven Clarke, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division in Washington, D.C. Understanding the sun, of course, has always been a top priority for space scientists.
NASA will be providing images captured before, during, and after the eclipse by 11 spacecraft, at least three NASA aircraft, more than 50 high-altitude balloons, and the astronauts aboard the International Space Station -- each offering a unique vantage point for the celestial event. NASA Television will also air a multi-hour show with unprecedented live video of the celestial event, along with coverage of activities in parks, libraries, stadiums, festivals and museums across the nation, and on social media.
"Never before will a celestial event be viewed by so many and explored from so many vantage points -- from space, from the air, and from the ground," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Take time to experience the Aug. 21 eclipse, but experience it safely," he said.
Of course, there is no substitute for being there, assuming you can get a place to stay. You still may have some options, according to Roomkey.com. You can also drive in just for the day, if you don't live too far.
Casper is hosting the Wyoming Eclipse Festival with events the entire previous week -- everything from an Eclipse Farmer's Market to a free concert to a special show at the Casper Planetarium. If you are planning to head to Grand Teton National Park, in the path of the eclipse, expect huge crowds.
Nashville, Tennessee, the largest city wholly within the path of the total solar eclipse, is touting eclipse vacation packages (including a blanket, presumably to sit on while watching the eclipse). Columbia, S.C., meanwhile, will be the most accessible city with hotels in the path of the total eclipse and is hosting a Total Eclipse Weekend with more than 80 eclipse-related activities.
A lot of people will be heading to Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- already the most visited national park in the country -- because the western half of the park will be in the path of the eclipse. (The park is currently planning organized public viewing events at three locations in the park. Visitors may view the eclipse from other areas, but the National Park Service warns that due to the influx of eclipse viewers during the already busy season, certain areas may have to be closed on August 21 to reduce grid lock.)
Just be forewarned. If it's cloudy, "you won't see anything," says eclipse2017.org.
But that will make a story in itself.