Who turned out the lights? A total solar eclipse transforms day into night—and the century's longest such moment takes place this July.
When the moon slides between the earth and the sun at just the right angle to create a total solar eclipse, astonishing things happen: "As the sun disappears, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck," says Vicki Buchwald, a dental hygienist from Crystal Lake, Ill. "I've cried and screamed. It's like looking into the eye of God." She and her husband, Greg, an electrical engineer, have traveled to see five eclipses and can't get enough. Let others chase tornadoes or the northern lights; for these fans, there is no better show, and the next one to catch is July 22 (July 21 if you're in the South Pacific).
What makes this eclipse extraordinary is that it'll create the longest stretch of darkness in the daytime that the planet will see for more than a hundred years. Even though it takes about three hours for all the phases of an eclipse to unfold, totality (when the moon entirely blocks the sun) is stunningly brief. This year, it'll last up to 6 minutes and 39 seconds. The next one to come close isn't until 2132.
Of course, being in the right place at the right time is key. As July's occurrence travels from India to the South Pacific, it will be visible along a 150-mile-wide swath. Since eclipses are lengthiest at the midpoints of their routes, the prime viewing destinations this summer will be on the coast of eastern China, a day trip from Shanghai. There, you'll see how local perceptions have also come a long way: What was once considered a bad omen is now cause for celebration.
Eclipse viewing 101
No matter how well you plan, catching an eclipse is a game of chance—clear skies are hard to predict a week ahead, much less months in advance. Nor does it help that the event takes place during monsoon season. Uncontrollables aside, here's how to maximize the marvel:
Reach for higher ground Head to a roof or a mountain to get away from buildings and ambient light that interfere with visibility.
Wear protection It's safe to look at the sun only when it is completely obscured by the moon. Staring at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can give you retinal burns and even cause temporary or permanent blindness. Regular sunglasses won't protect you, so play it safe and wear a pair of eclipse-viewing glasses—they may look like 3-D movie specs, but they actually contain specialized filters (seymoursolar.com, shades $1.50).
Snap away Regular digital and film cameras are fine for capturing the event, as long as you place a filter on your viewfinder to shield your eyes while shooting the partial stages (rainbowsymphonystore.com, filters from $10). For best results, use manual focus, turn off the flash, and remove the filter for totality. First-time viewer? Put down the camera and just take it in.
Be at ease Since you'll be staring skyward for hours, bring along snacks and a pillow or a folding chair. Then get comfy.
Let them take you there
These outfitters are offering expert-led eclipse trips in July:
TravelQuest International has a 15-day cruise through the South Pacific with lectures by Harvard astronomy professor Owen Gingerich and former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine Rick Fienberg (800/830-1998, tq-international.com, from $6,995 without airfare).
Spears Travel hired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak to head a 10-day trip from Beijing to Shanghai, with stops at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou. On July 22, the group will be in the seaside town of Haiyan, on a hotel roof directly in the path of the eclipse (800/688-8031, spearstravel.com, from $3,695 without airfare).
Ring of Fire Expeditions called on Paul Maley, expedition coordinator for NASA's Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, to guide a 10-day journey through China and Tibet. The itinerary includes a ride on the Xining–Lhasa train, a visit to the Wolong panda reserve, and an eclipse-viewing at a spot determined by Maley on the day of the event (281/480-1988, eclipsetours.com, from $3,789 without airfare).