Corona Chasers

You never forget your first solar eclipse

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

In August 2017, my husband, Josh, and I traveled to South Carolina to see a total solar eclipse for the first time. Filled with wonder and awe at the ghostly halo of our sun’s corona, we became eclipse chasers. In 2019, we witnessed this astronomical event in Chile’s Elqui Valley. And this year, on April 8, when a total solar eclipse crossed North America from Mexico to Canada, I was in the path of totality once more, this time in Texas. Alas, it will be 20 years until I’ll have the chance to witness a total eclipse again, at least in the contiguous United States. (Planning for Spain 2026 is underway.)

When I try to explain what it is like to watch a total solar eclipse, I often refer to Annie Dillard’s famous line: “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane.” Most people who have seen an eclipse have encountered a partial. Totality is something on another order. During a total eclipse, when the moon crosses in front of the sun, the two bodies appear to be the same size. That’s because the moon is both 400 times closer to us than the sun and 400 times smaller. As the moon ever so precisely blocks the sun’s visible light from our view, everything goes dark and cool here on Earth. But that isn’t the most amazing part. In a total solar eclipse, you can see the sun’s corona—its outer atmosphere—which normally isn’t visible because the sun’s surface is so much brighter. As soon as the moon blocks the sun, the bright white corona pops into view. In a partial eclipse, the sun is never completely blocked, and you never see the corona. Even in an annular eclipse—when the moon is farther away at the time of the crossing—too much sun comes through for the corona to be visible.

Josh is a NASA engineer, and both of us are space nerds. Back when we were dating, I bought him a Dobsonian telescope—a large-aperture reflector—which we often took with us on stargazing weekend getaways. (Friends of ours who wanted to join us had to drive to the destination separately; the telescope took up the whole back seat of my car.) We knew that we wanted to see the August 2017 eclipse, the first in a century to pass across the United States from coast to coast, leaving the country by way of Charleston. When I got a job doing public outreach for NASA, our journey became a work trip. I was given the task of broadcasting the astronomical event from the rooftop of Fort Moultrie, located in Charleston Harbor. We would be bringing the eclipse to the world using our own telescope and homemade sun filter (without which the sun’s intense light, focused into the small opening of an eyepiece, would fry the viewer’s retina).

On a hot August day, we packed our telescope into a rented minivan and drove from our home in Virginia to South Carolina. Our hotel, about 10 miles outside Charleston, was packed with members of the media and amateur enthusiasts. We saw cameras everywhere: under coffee tables, in elevators, in the hands of white-haired men in unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts. Cities located along the path of totality—from Salem, Oregon, to Jackson, Wyoming, to Nashville, Tennessee—had been preparing for massive crowds, and in South Carolina alone, an estimated 1.6 million people had come to witness totality.

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Jessica Wilde is a writer and filmmaker who creates content for NASA and other government clients.


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