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Total Eclipse of the Sun (Waco’s Version)

Baylor prepares for a once-in-a-lifetime event when Waco will become a prime location to view a total solar eclipse in April

The word “eclipse” derives from the Greek word ekleípō meaning disappearance. Going back centuries, when the planets and stars were much more interwoven with societal beliefs.

The Ancient Romans and Greeks both considered an eclipse to be an important omen of future events. In Asia and South America, it was believed that dragons or star demons were attacking the sun. The Vikings thought the sun and moon were being eaten by wolves, Hati and Skoll.

Our knowledge of eclipses is no longer shrouded in folklore, explained Barbara Castanheira-Endl, Ph.D., senior lecturer of physics at Baylor University.

“The moon orbits around the earth, and the earth and the moon orbit around the center of mass of the solar system, which is very close to the center of the sun,” she said. “If the earth, the moon, and the sun are perfectly aligned, we would see a lunar eclipse when the earth is in front of the sun, and every time the moon is in front of the sun, we would observe a solar eclipse. Of course, if they really were on a perfect plane, we would see eclipses literally every month. But there’s a tiny inclination of the orbit of the moon around the earth—about five degrees, it’s very small—but just enough to make eclipses very rare.”

There are three types of solar eclipse: total, partial, and annular. During a total solar eclipse, you will see the disk of the moon blocking 100 percent of the sun. Solar eclipses of some kind happen around twice every year, but a total solar eclipse occurs only once every 18 months. However, you have to be in the right place at the right time, which can be tough when so much of Earth is inhospitable or covered in water.

“The path of the totality is very small because the size of the moon is very small, so it’s visible in just a narrow bend that we can see,” added Castanheira-Endl.

But on April 8, 2024, observers in Waco will be in that “right time and right place.” The full path of the totality will be briefly in Mexico, then heads through the U.S. to Maine, where it crosses Southern Canada before ending its journey in the Atlantic Ocean. The total solar eclipse is predicted to last more than four minutes and is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. The last total solar eclipse visible in Waco was on July 29, 1878; the next one is not anticipated until after year 3000.

As well as planning alongside the City of Waco, Baylor University is partnering with the 128-year-old Lowell Observatory, an astronomical observatory based in three locations in Flagstaff, Arizona. Another partner is Discovery Channel, the cable channel owned by Warner Bros., which reaches 431 million homes in 170 countries.

“The Lowell Observatory is helping us schedule and plan events, and their astronomers will be here to give some of the college presentations,” explained Lorin Swint Matthews, Ph.D. (’94, ’98), professor and chair in the department of physics at Baylor University. “Discovery will be televising the event and will be coordinating a network of stations across the U.S. along the path of the eclipse as it progresses.”

If you were thinking that it’s a bit early to start planning for an event still several months away, you may be surprised to know that the Baylor team’s planning began back in Summer 2021.

“When we first started putting together the team, it was ‘T-minus 1,000 days,’” Castanheira-Endl said. “We are organizing a conference in the weeks before the eclipse, inviting scientists from all over the world to discuss physics and astrophysics and their applications for the future, and show our newest results in scientific research. That’s an exciting opportunity to bring the space community together.”

The scientific sessions will be closed for the conference attendees only.

“But we’ll probably have some evening talks that will be open to the public,” Matthews added. “And some of the scientists will be invited to be there on the day and give presentations that morning leading up to the eclipse.”

The partial phase of the solar eclipse will start at 12:20 pm (CDT). The sun’s surface will be totally covered by the moon at 1:38 pm. Four minutes and 38 seconds later, the partial phase will begin again until the sun will be 100 percent visible by 2:00 pm.

An important part of the solar eclipse is being able to use it as a tool for education.

“This will be an educational event where teachers can learn about the eclipse and then go back to their classrooms and tell their students all about what the eclipse is, experiments they can do during the eclipse, and how to view it safely,” said Matthews. “We’ll be having outreach events in the months leading up to the solar eclipse.”

The City of Waco will also be playing a large part in the organization of the event, which is being called, “Eclipse Over Texas: Live from Waco.” The Eclipse Committee at Baylor University is expecting tens of thousands of visitors on campus to come and see the solar eclipse.

Matthews is confident that their careful planning will mean the event will be successful. Official activities are scheduled to take place on the South Plaza and Touchdown Alley areas of Baylor’s McLane Stadium, which is located on the banks of the Brazos River and where participants may enjoy an unobstructed view of the sun in the sky.

If any further planning were required, a preview was provided when Waco experiences an annular eclipse — a different solar experience when the sun is eclipsed by the moon, but it isn’t completely blocked as the moon appears to be surrounded by a bright “ring of fire” — on Saturday, October 14, 2023. The path of that annular eclipse began in Oregon on its way to Texas, and from there it was seen in Central America and South America on its way out to the Atlantic Ocean where it ended.

Just a matter of weeks before the total solar eclipse in Waco, there is much anticipation for an event to truly prove how much Texans love their eclipses.

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