Once in a Lifetime

By Susan Bean Aycock

On the total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024, with Waco in the spotlight

Don’t look now, but time is ticking down to one of the biggest natural events of the decade: a total solar eclipse that will plunge Waco into full darkness in the middle of the day for four minutes and 13 seconds on April 8, 2024.

Spectacular science will dominate the day with a full roll-out event and performance extravaganza, the main event being ringside seats for ticketed viewers on the grounds of Baylor University’s McLane Stadium. Local event partners BU and the City of Waco were featured in “Total Eclipse, Texas Style” in the April Wacoan issue. This month, we spotlight the Lowell Observatory, a national partner of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc., before the 2024 event “Eclipse Over Texas: Live from Waco.”

Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock chatted with Lowell Observatory Historian and Public Information Officer Kevin Schindler recently about the facility; its illustrious place in past astronomical history; its continuing scientific research and public outreach; and the planned influx of its renowned scientists to Waco, Texas to view the eclipse with the rest of us.

WACOAN: Tell me a little about the Lowell Observatory.

Schindler: The Lowell Observatory [in Flagstaff, Arizona] has been around since 1894, 18 years before Arizona became a state. It was founded by Percival Lowell, who was intent on looking for intelligent life on Mars. Since then, Lowell has become a leading research facility with major outreach programs — we consider ourselves scientist-communicators. Some of our outreach programs are telescope viewings at night, exhibitions, all kinds of specific programs — we offer a wide variety of programming for the general public. Our astronomers do major research and share their results worldwide. At Lowell, we’re really excited about astronomy.

One of the Lowell Observatory’s most important contributions was the discovery of Pluto in 1930. We discovered the first evidence of an expanding universe in 1912, and in the 1960s, Apollo astronauts came to Lowell as a part of their training. Before Covid, our visitor program had in excess of 100,000 visitors a year. In the fall of 2024, we’ll open a new visitors’ facility that at 40,000 square feet will allow us to triple attendance. We have the Lowell Discovery Telescope — we partner regularly with its namesake sponsor Warner Bros. Discovery, and they’re the official broadcasters of the event in Waco. It’s the fifth largest telescope in the continental U.S. and one of the most powerful in the world. Our astronomers use it to look at nearby comets and asteroids, to look at Pluto and beyond our solar system, studying galaxies and how they interact with each other. There’s something called a cannibal galaxy, where one galaxy gobbles up another.

WACOAN: How long has the 2024 total solar eclipse been on the Observatory’s radar? When did event preparations start in earnest?

Schindler: It’s been on our radar since 2017, when there was a partial eclipse. Lowell hosted a program in Madras, Oregon, where we partnered with a local school to view the eclipse from their football stadium. When we saw that a total solar eclipse would be happening in 2024, we realized that this would be the last shot at seeing a total eclipse in many people’s lifetimes. Seeing totality is borderline life-altering. The sky goes dark; there’s sunset in all directions. The temperature cools down and nocturnal animals come out.

WACOAN: How rare is a total solar eclipse in a viewable location on the planet?

Schindler: There’s one on earth every couple of years — though it’s not exact — but the viewing locations are very limited. Two-thirds of the earth is covered with water, so about that percentage of total eclipses occur over the ocean. In 2017, the eclipse path stretched from the Pacific northwest to the east coast; this one will stretch from Texas to the northeast. There will be another one over Egypt in a few years, but we won’t have another total solar eclipse that can be seen across the U.S. for many years [Wacoan’s note: August 23, 2044].

WACOAN: How did Waco enter into the eclipse event planning mix?

Schindler: When we decided to do an event for 2024, we began to look for partners and a place — one with the greatest probability of good weather, based on past weather patterns. Texas has the greatest length of eclipse, a little over four minutes, for 2024. After pinpointing Texas for its weather and eclipse duration, we began to look for partners and found the City of Waco and Baylor University.

WACOAN: Let’s talk about totality. What happens when the sun goes into total eclipse?

Schindler: The closer you are to the center line [of the solar eclipse path], the more you’ll see of totality. Totality has some really cool features, like the ‘diamond ring’ and ‘Baily’s beads.’ [Wacoan’s note: Just before totality and right before it ends, the moon almost fully covers the sun and a final bright spot of sunlight — the diamond — remains visible. Baily’s beads are caused by sunlight passing through valleys and between mountains on the moon’s irregular surface. Named after British astronomer Francis Baily, these beads of light appear around the edge of the moon during the seconds leading up to totality and just after.] You can get a colander — or a Ritz cracker or criss-cross your fingers — and see little mini-eclipses from the projection of the sun.

Once you hit totality, it’s four minutes of pure awe. It’s a Kodak moment where you’ll remember where you were when you saw the total eclipse, like remembering where you were when you watched man step foot on the moon for the first time, if you were around. You can see it in pictures, but it’s not the same as the experience in real life.

WACOAN: What’s Lowell Observatory’s role in Waco on eclipse day?

Schindler: Lowell will sponsor a full day of events at Baylor University’s McLane Stadium Touchdown Alley on eclipse day. There’ll be family activities, day viewing with telescopes and various speakers and scientists from Lowell. The City of Waco is planning a full slate of events on the weekend before Eclipse Monday.

Wacoan’s note: Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc., will serve as the other national partner with the Lowell Observatory, alongside local partners Baylor University and the City of Waco, by livestreaming the eclipse and events worldwide, but fixed programming has not yet been set.

A Lowell Observatory Astronomer Says: Seriously, Don’t Miss It

Dr. Larry Wasserman, astronomer, Lowell Observatory

Scientifically, solar eclipses are really only of interest to a small subset of astronomers who study the solar corona. They’re only visible without special instrumentation when the sun is covered by the moon during a solar eclipse.

So why do people run to see these? If you have never actually seen a total solar eclipse, it’s hard to explain how strange and unworldly it is both for astronomers and the general public. Having the sun disappear in a clear sky in the middle of the afternoon is a very disturbing experience. You definitely understand why ancient people beat drums and made noise to scare away the dragon that was eating the sun.

Of course, we now understand what is actually happening and can predict such events far in advance, but it’s still truly a dramatic event to actually observe. I know that some people ignore it, even if they are actually in the path. I can only say: don’t be one of those.

I’ve already seen two total eclipses, and I’ll be in Waco for this one too — and I may bring my drum to scare away the dragon.

Dr. Larry Wasserman has served as an astronomer at Lowell Observatory since 1974 and continues his work in semi-retirement. He studies mostly smaller objects in the solar system such as asteroids and objects in the Kuiper Belt [a doughnut-shaped ring of icy objects around the sun].

Fast Facts on “Eclipse Over Texas: Live from Waco”

Eclipse day: Monday, April 8, 2024 (CST/Waco time)
Partial eclipse begins 12:20 p.m.
Totality 1:38-1:42 p.m.
Eclipse ends 3:00 p.m.

The Main Event: Ticketed admission to the event venue on the grounds of Baylor University’s McLane Stadium (Touchdown Alley) includes includes food trucks, science talks by astronomers and educators, interactive family-friendly activities and safe guided viewing of the sun as it progresses through the eclipse. The grounds will be open from 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Tickets: You can buy tickets online at eclipseovertexas2024.com. Each ticket comes with a pair of ISO-certified [an international safety standard] solar glasses, available upon entry to the stadium area. All tickets are non-refundable and have an additional booking fee. Parking is priced separately.

Ticket prices are: $20 for adults and $10 for children 5-17. Admission is free to children under four. A VIP Experience for $75 per person includes access to an exclusive viewing area, reserved seating for science talks, a special STEM zone and more. Discount rates are available for school groups K-12 with a minimum of 10 students per group; group pricing applies to students, teachers and chaperones.

Parking: Tickets for premium parking at McLane Stadium are $25 plus booking fee and are available online along with event admission tickets. All vehicles must fit in a standard parking spot.

Free parking will be available downtown, with free shuttle service to the stadium, courtesy of the City of Waco.

Free accessible parking with an accessible shuttle to the stadium will be available at the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaboration, 100 Research Pkwy.

Safe Viewing if You’re Watching on Your Own: ISO-certified solar glasses are provided with paid, ticketed admission to the McLane Stadium viewing area, but if you’re watching on your own, please note this safety admonition by Lowell Observatory Astronomer Dr. Larry Wasserman: “You must not look directly at the sun except during the total phase of the eclipse. You need special eclipse glasses and there is a lot of cheap junk out there on the Web — including ones from Amazon. The Exploratorium in San Francisco has a website which lists various ways to safely watch the eclipse, and they suggest a number of places on the Web that sell safe eclipse glasses.” (exploratorium.edu/eclipse/how-to-view-eclipse).