Solar Eclipses can be exciting events that capture the imagination of all of us. There is something fundamental perhaps primal about the sun – a source of life giving energy going away. You can take advantage of this sense of awe by holding an eclipse party!
Eclipse parties are very similar to star parties where groups of amateur astronomers get together to view the night sky with their telescopes, binoculars, and cameras. But there are some important differences that make eclipse parties unique.
Star parties are usually held monthly at a dark site, far away from the glare of city lights. This means you may have to travel a bit to get there. They can be held for just one night or can be weekend affairs where people camp out overnight to stay up as late as possible under the stars. This can make less accessible for school age kids who have regular bed times.
A solar eclipse can be a catalyst for an eclipse party. Eclipse parties can be centered around actual visual observations of an eclipse (if any part of the umbral or penumbral shadow passes over your area), or they can rely on remote transmission of an eclipse image to your site from someone along the path of totality. Since they may occur in locations far away from you, it is possible for the eclipse to occur during night time hours in your part of the world. In this case, a museum sleep over might be a good venue. When they happen during the day, you have the opportunity to involve schools or after school astronomy clubs. Day time observing though could pose a problem for people who work, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff. When schools are involved, you may want to do some ground work ahead of time to ensure that there are no problems or concerns about viewing the sun. Some school systems will actually keep kids inside (no recess) during a solar eclipse, so check in advance to make sure. Also, teachers need to plan ahead…especially if a field trip is involved.
You will need to supply attendees with safe means to view the eclipse and should probably be ready to instruct the crowd. Some options are pinhole cameras, telescopes with securely fitting solar filters, and even image projection from binoculars. The trick is to have a knowledgeable attendant stationed at each of the observing locations at all times.
Timing is everything. Observers should be made aware of the times of ingress and egress and prompted with time updates every 10-15 minutes. For solar eclipses, announcements of the totality times (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th contact) should be made. Here it is especially important to sound an alarm maybe 15 seconds before totality ends so that people are not caught looking at or photographing the eclipse without solar filters when the sun reemerges from behind the moon.
If your eclipse is happening in some far off land, you might plan to have the party indoors or do some general solar viewing before the eclipse begins. Inside, you can have fun activities for the attendees to do and can broadcast the eclipse via web or TV. You can have materials to hand out from your club, local museum, or from NASA. Other possibilities are to read a story to young children about the eclipse, have children do an arts and crafts activity about eclipses, or a variety of other activities that you can find on the web or through your club.
People will have all sorts of questions about the eclipse and, most likely, about a wide range of astronomy topics, so be prepared to spend some of your time just answering questions. In addition, you might plan to hand out some packets of information or flyers about the eclipse ahead of time.
Total solar eclipses happen because the Sun is near one of the nodes of the lunar orbit, and the Moon is near perigee at this node at the same time.