The Great American Eclipse

By Patrick McCarthy, Director, Giant Magellan Telescope

I’ve been waiting for August 21, 2017 since I was 10 years old.

I received my first telescope as a birthday present and along with it, came a small book that described major astronomical phenomenon and the dates in which they would occur. With that book, I knew that there would be a total solar eclipse visible across the entire U.S. in 2017. I’ve been waiting for it ever since.

Patrick McCarthy with telescope

With my first telescope at age 10.

Many of my colleagues at GMT will be travelling from Pasadena to different areas in the line of totality, the slender path where the full eclipse will be visible and the sun is completely blocked by the moon, while others are staying in Pasadena, CA to enjoy the partial eclipse from the project’s HQ. To get the best views, our team is traveling as far as South Carolina, and others will be in Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee and Wyoming – all of the states traversed by the path of totality.

I haven’t yet decided where I’ll be viewing, because I’m looking for the optimal weather. I’ll either be joining friends in Oregon or traveling to my childhood home in St. Louis to watch alongside my mother, something we talked about many years ago when I discovered, in my astronomy book, that my home town was a peak place for eclipse viewing.

Here are my four tips for viewing the total solar eclipse:

  1. Safety first! Never look directly at the sun with the naked eye or through a telescope, camera, binoculars or anything else. It is only safe if you are using special-purpose solar glasses or filters, and during the brief minutes of totality when the sun is completely covered by the moon.
  2. If you are traveling to see the eclipse, make sure you get to within the zone of totality. You must be in the path of the moon’s shadow to experience the full eclipse and see the sun’s corona. The difference between being in the zone and outside it is night and day – literally! However, if you can’t make it to the zone, make sure you still (safely) check out the sun because you will see a partial solar eclipse – a fascinating sight.
  3. To add to your solar eclipse experience, and to view the partial eclipse safely, make your own pinhole projector (directions below)! All you need to do is make a small hole in a piece of cardstock, then stand with your back to the sun, and hold the card 2-3 feet above the ground. In the shadow of the card you will see the image of partially eclipsed Sun. Dappled sunlight under a tree or your interlaced fingers also make great pinholes.
  4. If you are feeling ambitious, learn how to photograph the eclipse. To do it properly you’ll need to get your hands-on equipment like a DSLR camera, long lens and solar filter, and tripod. But, if it’s your first total eclipse we recommend you just experience it and don’t miss the action trying to take photographs!

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of this rare celestial phenomena, we’ve prepared easy instructions to make your own pinhole viewer which you can use to view partial phases of the eclipse. But remember eclipse safety: looking directly at the sun without adequate protection is dangerous and could cause serious eye damage or blindness. For information on how to safely view the eclipse, visit the American Astronomical Society website:

Pinhole instructions