CLEMSON — A sunlit sky turns pitch dark in the middle of the day as the moon moves between the Earth and the sun: a total solar eclipse.

Total solar eclipse over Svalbard, Norway.

Total solar eclipse over Svalbard, Norway.
Image Credit: NASA

The last time such an eclipse occurred over Clemson was June 24, 1778. Now, 239 years later, Clemson University researchers prepare for the Aug. 21 coast-to-coast eclipse. The path of totality is about 70 miles wide and Clemson’s campus is about three miles from the center path.

“Solar eclipses themselves are not rare, but the chance of having one pass over where you live is really special,” said Amber Porter, a  lecturer in the department of physics and astronomy in the College of Science at Clemson.

Chasing an eclipse

Self-proclaimed eclipse-chaser Rick Brown cleared his schedule months ago to be at Clemson for the eclipse. The Long Island, New York, commodity trader will share his expertise and experiences.

The eclipse path will be from Oregon to South Carolina.

The eclipse path will be from Oregon to South Carolina.
Image Credit: NASA

“Clemson turns out to be an excellent area to see it,” Brown said. “Weather prospects are fairly good and Clemson lies just off the very center of the center line.”

Clemson scientists say total solar eclipses happen somewhere on Earth every 18 months. This summer’s is unusual because it crosses the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina.

Brown has traveled around the globe to see total eclipses. This will be his 16th.

“It’s the first one I’ve seen in the U.S. since my very first eclipse, which was in Virginia Beach in 1970,” Brown said. “That’s when I got hooked and I’ve been chasing them ever since.”

Clemson College of Science adjunct professor Donald Liebenberg is chronicling his 60-plus years of total solar eclipse experiences on the university’s official eclipse web page.

Liebenberg is recounting all 26 of the total solar eclipses he witnessed. The scientist studied the cosmic occurrences from the ground, by ship and in the air. He even spent 75 minutes in the cabin of a Concorde supersonic airliner to capture the totality of an eclipse.

The moon and sun kiss

Brown flew from New York to Virginia Beach for his first look at a moon-veiled sun. The then-17-year-old saw thousands of people gathered on the beach, many with telescopes, cameras and binoculars, all waiting for the eclipse.

“I remember finally being able to see the moon and sun ‘kissing’ a short time after those with binoculars did,” Brown said. “People were projecting the suns’ reflection on the ground with telescopes. Cardboard boxes were everywhere, and everyone thought the next hour or so might be a bit boring as the moon moved across the face of the sun.”

Brown said excitement built as the sky got darker and darker.

“There was an eerie lighting in the air,” Brown said. “Then it all started, a large crescendo in peoples’ voices: ‘Look at this! Look at this!’”

Brown said he saw stars, planets and shadow bands. He remembered feeling the approaching shadow and observing the diamond ring effect, then — totality.

‘The eye of God’

Many people aren’t sure what to make of all the fuss over a couple minutes of darkness. Brown says you just have to be there. His accounts of what happens during a total eclipse are almost biblical in tone.

“My eyes were fixated on what to me looked like the eye of God,” Brown said about his 1970 experience. “The side of the moon facing earth with the power to block the sun seemed to me to be a hole in the universe, the blackest black that, to this day, I have never encountered except during an eclipse.”

Brown said he was still  unaware of anything for more than two minutes that day in Virginia Beach. Then, “it was over.”

Watching the total solar eclipse over Clemson

Clemson will serve as a hub for eclipse watchers up and down the Eastern Seaboard. South Carolina is the shortest trip for any of the 11.5 million people living in the Atlantic states who wish to travel to the path of totality.

Certified protective eyewear will be available at Clemson’s central viewing location the day of the eclipse. Looking at the eclipse without special sun-filtered glasses can lead to permanent eye damage.

Astrophysicists and other eclipse experts will be at Clemson to answer questions about eclipses and talk about their research.

Clemson is finalizing its eclipse viewing plans and activities. Details will be included on the Eclipse over Clemson website.