San Juan College Planetarium director says solar eclipse sure to be a spectacle
Three-hour observation event planned for Aug. 21
FARMINGTON — Celestial events are more than just a matter of idle curiosity to David Mayeux — they're largely the reason he gets out of bed and goes to work every day.
So as excitement continues to build among members of the public about the Aug. 21 solar eclipse that will leave large swaths of the United States in darkness for several minutes, it's easy to imagine how much Mayeux, the San Juan College Planetarium director, is anticipating that day.
"It's always awesome to see one of these," Mayeux said with a smile Friday while standing in the semi-darkness of the Planetarium. "I do wish we were on the center line of this. I've still never seen one of these from that center line."
Mayeux was referring to the fact that Farmington will not experience the darkness that so many other parts of the country will as the moon passes between the earth and sun on Aug. 21. Those locations that are in the so-called "path of totality" will experience a mid-day blackout that lasts anywhere from just a few seconds to more than two and a half minutes.
Farmington is several hundred miles from the path of totality, which will run across America from South Carolina to Oregon, but that doesn't mean residents here won't be in for a good show. Mayeux said the city should achieve 82 percent coverage during the height of the eclipse at 11:41 a.m. Aug. 21, meaning there will be a noticeable decrease in brightness and temperature.
"It's as though you put on some very dark sunglasses," he said.
Mayeux acknowledged he was sorely tempted to travel to Wyoming or Nebraska, the two closest states that will experience totality, on the day of the eclipse.
"I agonized over this for about a year or two," Mayeux said. "I knew we were not going to have a solar eclipse as close to here for several decades."
Ultimately, he said, he resisted that urge, understanding that a single ill-timed cloud passing before the sun could ruin his viewing experience and make his trip largely a waste of time.
"Everywhere you go, you're playing a crapshoot with the weather," he said. "You have to be mobile if you're actually going to chase eclipses. Totality is never more than a couple of minutes. If somebody could guarantee me I'd get to see it, then, yeah, I think I'd have gone."
Communities and highways along the path of totality in the United States are expected to be clogged during the eclipse. The Colorado Department of Transportation issued a travel advisory on Aug. 8, warning motorists planning on driving north that day that traffic will be very heavy and to expect delays. It said some experts are predicting that 600,000 people — more than the population of Wyoming — are expected to crowd into that state on that day to witness the event.
Mayeux doesn't like crowds, and that provided more motivation for staying close to home for the eclipse. He also has another reason, one that speaks directly to his role at the college.
"If I went, there would be nobody else here to show the eclipse to everybody else," he said. "I thought it would be good to serve the community."
Mayeux is planning an eclipse observation session adjacent to parking lot F at the northwest corner of the San Juan College campus. The event will begin at 10 a.m. and last until a little after 1 p.m. Mayeux will have a telescope with a solar filter on it set up for safe viewing, while the image from another telescope will be projected on to a screen. The moon will begin to eclipse the sun at 10:18 a.m., and its contact will end at 1:09 p.m.
Attendance at that event is expected to be high. When Mayeux held a similar event for an annular solar eclipse — an eclipse in which the moon is at the far end of its orbit around the earth and fails to completely cover the disc of the sun, leaving a bright ring visible — on May 20, 2012, more than 600 people turned out, including two visitors from New Zealand. But he was quick to point out that took place on a Sunday, when most people weren't at work.
The observation event also will take place on the first day of the fall semester at San Juan College, and Mayeux said parking likely will be an issue. Restrooms will be open to the public at the nearby soccer-baseball complex, but there will not be tents set up, so people are advised to plan to provide their own shade and bring plenty of water.
Those who can't attend the Aug. 21 session still will have a chance to experience the eclipse, albeit on a simulated basis, on Friday night. Mayeux will be leading a pair of AstroFriday programs at the Planetarium. The event features a NASA video called "Path of Totality" that chronicles what the eclipse will bel like along the center line, while Mayeux will be presenting a simulation with the star projector of how the eclipse will look from Farmington on a time-lapse basis.
"If it does end up being cloudy on Monday, you can see what it would look like, at least," he said of the simulation.
Programs will begin at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. No one will be admitted once the program has begun.
For those who remain intent on seeing the real thing, Mayeux said the shortest route to the path of totality is to travel northeast of Farmington. As the crow flies, that is its closest proximity to Farmington, although travelers still would have to make it to southeast Wyoming or southwest Nebraska to find totality. Much of the northern half of Colorado, however, will achieve upward of 90 percent coverage.
Mayeux said he couldn't emphasize enough how important it is for viewers everywhere to take proper precautions when viewing the eclipse. Staring at the sun without a proper filter quickly can cause vision damage, he said. He advised those who plan to watch the event to visit the San Juan College bookstore, which is selling eclipse sunglasses for $1.25 and hand-held eclipse viewing cards for $1.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.