Solar eclipse brings watch parties to local museums, observatories

When people turn their gazes skyward Monday for a cross-continental solar eclipse, those in the lucky path of totality will see something surreal: the sun blotted out by the moon for a precious few minutes in midday.

South Florida will not be so lucky. Even if the area’s mercurial weather cooperates, the eclipse’s path will miss the state entirely, only reaching as far south as South Carolina.

But we’ll be able to see a partial solar eclipse from about 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., with the peak, when the greatest amount of the sun will be covered, taking place just before 3 p.m.

Local astronomers see the solar eclipse as a once-in-a-century opportunity. Florida International University is opening up its observatory for a watch party, as is Fox Observatory in Sunrise. The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science is hosting an eclipse-watching event of its own, and some libraries are handing out eclipse-viewing glasses — necessary for anyone who gazes directly at the sun.

For many of the places hosting science events, the eclipse presents an opportunity to get people interested in science.

Monday’s solar eclipse “is right up there with some of the coolest things you can watch,” said FIU astronomy professor James Webb. Webb was 4 when NASA was created, 12 when “Star Trek” began airing, 15 when humans landed on the moon: “I was basically brainwashed into being an astronomer.”

It didn’t matter that he was the son of a factory worker in Anderson, Indiana, or that after graduating, he spent a few years working at an automobile factory. He devoured astronomy books during breaks and eventually went to college to major in physics and get his Ph.D.

But he doesn’t see the same kind of appreciation for science today.

“Now we have people in power denying climate change. Political decisions are no longer made on scientific fact,” he said. “That’s tragic for me. I never thought I would see this happen.”

Events like the solar eclipse, he said, are a chance to show “the predictive power of science” and prove that scientists know what they’re talking about.

Scientists can say down to the minute how long the eclipse will be visible from land, from its first appearance north of Newport, Oregon, (at 10:15 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time Monday) to its Atlantic endpoint near Charleston, South Carolina, about an hour and a half later (2:45 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time).

They’ve already plotted its southeasterly race, at an average 2,100 miles an hour, through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, where millions are expected to travel into the shadow’s path to see the total eclipse for themselves.

“Half of my job is getting people to understand what science is, and how science can tell you things that nothing else can,” Webb said.

But, sometimes, people don’t always believe what they see. At Fox Observatory in Sunrise, volunteers with the South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association host a free public stargazing every Saturday night. Theopen houses are many visitors’ first interaction with planet watching.

“Is that really Jupiter?” observatory director Monroe Pattillo is often asked. The challenge is “making the image look like a sticker,” he said.

That can be even more challenging with the “deep sky fuzzies:” the globular clusters and nebulae that register more as an indistinct blob than the light-enhanced, contrast-tweaked photos splashed on science magazines and websites, Pattillo said.

The viewing experience can get people hooked — it’s just a matter of getting them through the door.

Several volunteers expect the eclipse to turn out a crowd of hundreds if the weather holds. Though solar eclipses are fairly common and can happen up to multiple times a year, many happen over the ocean or in far-flung countries. The last time an eclipse crossed America coast to coast was nearly a century ago, Pattillo said.

“The more an astronomical event is touted by the media, the more people call and ask what we’re doing,” he said.

The calls asking about the solar eclipse, he added, have been coming in for weeks.

On one balmy July night, a couple of dozen parents and their children wandered through the observatory’s viewing space to look through the two telescopes installed inside. The night’s targets — Jupiter and Saturn — were visible despite some threatening clouds earlier in the day, and kids oohed and aahed over what they saw.

But before public outreach director Nikole Bosch began a presentation about the eclipse that night, she paused to point out that science — and science education — could be so important. Science is about exploration, she told the attentive kids. They could be scientists who discovered more about the sun, or other planets in the solar system. “You guys could be the first ones to go to Mars,” she said.

“So, how many of you are interested in science?” she asked.

All the little hands in the room went up.

Monday’s eclipse-viewing events

Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, 1101 Biscayne Blvd. The museum will have telescopes on its Science Plaza and host NASA’s livestream of the eclipse. It will provide complimentary eclipse glasses for ticket holders while supplies last. Admission tickets are $28 for adults, $20 for children (ages 3-11).

The Stocker AstroScience Center at Florida International University, 11200 SW Eighth St. The center will open its observatory and have FIU astronomy faculty explain the phenomenon from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. Telescopes and a limited number of NASA-approved eclipse viewing glasses will be available. Free.

Deering Estate,16701 SW 72nd Ave. The Southern Cross Astronomical Society will have professional telescopes on site for eclipse viewing from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission tickets are $12 for adults and $7 for children ages 4-14.

Fox Observatory,16001 State Road 84, Sunrise. The South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association will host an eclipse-watching party at its observatory in Markham Park from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Free.