Talkeetna ‘amateur astronomer’ eager for Monday’s total solar eclipse

Kathleen Fleming, host of Star Date Susitna on KTNA.

Kathleen Fleming, host of Star Date Susitna on KTNA.

 

 

 

By JACOB MANN Frontiersman.com

Note:  This story comes to us via a content sharing agreement between KTNA and Wick Communications, the parent company of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, Talkeetna Press, and other local papers in Alaska.

For the first time in almost 100 years, a total solar eclipse will span a 70 mile-wide swath across the United States. The rest of the states, including Alaska, will have the chance to see a partial solar eclipse. The event will occur Aug. 21, starting at 8:21 a.m. Alaska time. The maximum visibility will be at 9:16 a.m. and it will end at 10:13 a.m.

The amount of visibility will vary based on location and the weather. Clearly, an overcast sky will damper chances of seeing the eclipse and some spots on the map will only grant a brief moment to catch it. In Anchorage, the moon will eclipse about 45 percent of the sun at maximum coverage. Places like Utqiaġvik will only get to see 22 percent.

The Anchorage Museum is holding a free viewing party on the front lawn with local astronomers, solar telescopes and other eclipse viewing equipment, starting at 8 a.m.

According to Kathleen Fleming, host of the KTNA radio program, Star Date, this 2017 eclipse has caught a lot more attention for Americans than others in the past because it will be going across the states. She said that there has been a lot of media coverage for this eclipse, saying the general awareness is “off the charts.”

Fleming will be observing the 2017 eclipse on private property south of the centerline, down past Madres, Oregon. She said she will be “sacrificing 30 seconds of totality” by viewing it there, but admitted it would worth it because there will be no crowds. This will be Fleming’s sixth eclipse observation. Since 1998, she has traveled the world chasing eclipses, starting with her first in 1998 in the Caribbean. She traveled to Zambia, South Africa, in 2001, Side, Turkey, in 2006, Beijing, China, during the 2008 Summer Olympics and to Queensland, Australia, in 2012. She said it was an “excuse to travel to interesting places.”

Fleming’s passion for “amateur astronomy” exploded in 1993 when she aired her first radio show, Star Date Susitna. She said it was originally titled Star Date Talkeetna but the name was changed as the audience picked up across the Susitna Valley. The radio frequency has a radius of about 30 miles, so it will reach as far a Willow. Everyone else across the state are unable to tune in on the radio to hear it but they can access the archives off of the KTNA website. She said her focus is to cover astronomical topics that are specific to the Susitna area because that’s her home.

“Alaska has got a lot of night and I just started learning a few things and that led to learning a little bit more,” Fleming said.

Fleming has been broadcasting her radio show for well over a decade and shows no signs of slowing down. Although she has no formal training, she has built up an archive of astronomical knowledge, fueled by her enthusiasm. She said that she seems to have become a “public figure” on the subject, so that added to her incentive to chase eclipses as a “star gazer.” She is the sole content creator for her show.

“I’m the only person, I’m the researcher, the writer, the producer, the editor, the host — I’m everything,” Fleming said. “It tends to inspire you to learn more about your topic so that you can be better at teaching other people. So, it’s because of Start Date Susitna, because of the radio show that I have developed the knowledge I have.”

The scientific community is buzzing about the event for a number of reasons, namely the chance to study the sun’s faint outer atmosphere, the corona. Alaska Airlines is even taking a special flight with scientists, VIP passengers and two winners of their social media ticket giveaway.

Due to technology, this event will likely be one of the most recorded eclipses in history. Fleming predicts that a lot of people will be documenting and discussing the eclipse, both professionally and by everyday people, or “civilian scientists.” It’s likely that many people will live stream the event via Facebook or by other means. NASA and many other entities will cover the eclipse. For a list of 2017 eclipse discussion and coverage, visit: eclipse.aas.org/resources/podcasts-webcasts

“A highly populated, educated continent gives an incredible opportunity for citizen science to occur,” Fleming said.

The Eclipse Megamovie Project aims to gather as many images of the eclipse from as many locations as possible. According to the website, the project will utilize more than 1,000 volunteer photographers and amateur astronomers, as well as many more members of the general public. “We’ll then stitch these media assets together to create an expanded and continuous view of the total eclipse as it crosses the United States.” The website also has a simulator that will show how the eclipse will appear in a particular location. To participate or learn more, visit eclipsemega.movie

According to an article on Space.com, the 2017 event will be a “great opportunity to revisit a groundbreaking experiment” that happened during a total solar eclipse. That observation helped confirm Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The article also mentioned that the European Space Agency claimed that celestial event was “probably the most important eclipse in the history of science.”

Fleming said that solar eclipses have played very important roles in history, sometimes good, sometimes bad — often all dramatic.

“There is a lot of historical superstition around eclipses,” Fleming said. “Today, it’s usually in more of a traditional, aboriginal culture that still has taboos about being in the light of an eclipse. They’ll go in and hide. They’ll close the drapes because they think there is something inherently dangerous because eclipses over millennia have been associated with the omens of doom, a war, or the death of a leader. They were intense, scary, dramatic events.”

According to History.com, “Lunar and solar eclipses have played no small role in human history. Striking to behold and relatively easy for astronomers to predict, these phenomena allowed ancient civilizations to develop sophisticated calendars, convinced Aristotle that the Earth was round and helped Einstein prove his theory of relativity.”

“Space being warped by gravity means light from a certain star would be altered near the sun. The only time you can see a star near the sun, is during a total solar eclipse,” Fleming said.

In May 1919, Arthur Eddington, Frank Watson Dyson, and their team were the first to observe light deflection, which are at times called “Einstein Rings.”

“They noticed that starlight was indeed offset a little bit, proving Einstein’s theory of gravitational lens, or tweaking the path of photons- indeed happens,” Fleming said. “The importance of total solar eclipses through history is just one scientific theory after another.”

Fleming felt that Alaskans should be more interested in the upcoming celestial event. She said that partial eclipses don’t usually stir up as much excitement as total ones.

“Typically, people don’t make a Herculean effort to see a partial eclipse,” Fleming said. “They’re not excited enough about this! I’m trying to change that.”

The next total eclipse in the Americas won’t be until 2024.

There’s a number of ways to observe the solar eclipse. One of the most common methods is to use special glasses, like Eclipse Shades. They are usually made of paper and look like the first generation of 3-D movie glasses with a special filter that protects the eyes from sun damage. Fleming mentioned that some building supply stores carry welding glass, and to only use shade 14 and higher. You can also project the eclipse from binoculars and telescopes onto paper. There is also a pinhole method with various types of projectors, but the simplest design only requires two sheets of paper and a pin or thumbtack.

Never look directly at the sun while observing the eclipse.

For observation methods and tips, visit https://www.space.com/35555-total-solar-eclipse-safety-tips.html

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