What to expect in Pittsburgh during a total solar eclipse this August

A Pitt team is traveling to Tennessee to help NASA document the path of the eclipse.

Louis Coban, Carlos Vazquez and Marshall Hartman fill the balloon with helium for a Friday test launch.

Louis Coban, Carlos Vazquez and Marshall Hartman fill the balloon with helium for a Friday test launch.

MJ slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

Mark your calendar — on August 21, a total solar eclipse will happen coast-to-coast.

Although Pittsburgh isn’t in the eclipse’s direct path, you’ll be able to see it from here. And if you want to see what it looks like when it’s dark in the middle of the day, NASA will be livestreaming from the path thanks to research teams like the one from the University of Pittsburgh.

On Friday morning, the rain cleared and the sky turned blue just as the team of faculty, students and Allegheny Observatory staff was about to test-launch their high-altitude balloon from the observatory for the last time.

The balloon has five pieces attached to it, and the whole thing goes up to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere — up to 105,000 feet —in about an hour and a half. Inside the top piece is a computer that will trigger the rope to be cut, and the pieces (aka “payloads”) carrying sensors, computers, GPS and cameras taking video and photos will return to the ground with a parachute.

The GPS helps the team find the payloads when they land, usually about 40 miles away. (On Friday the team went to Indiana, Pa. to retrieve the data devices.)

On eclipse day, the Pitt team will be in the eclipse’s path near Springfield, Tenn., which is simply the closest direct spot via car, said Dave Turnshek, director of the Allegheny Observatory. About 55 teams will be in the path and sending live video and photos to NASA, per the project’s website.

It’s the first time that a total solar eclipse can be viewed from the perspective of near-space, the Pitt team members said.

So what is a solar eclipse?

According to NASA, an eclipse is when the moon and the sun are the “same angular size.”

“The Sun is 400 times wider than the moon, but it is also 400 times farther away, so they coincidentally appear to be the same size in our sky,” per NASA.

The August eclipse goes from Salem, Ore. to Charleston, S.C., and those in the path will have roughly two minutes of darkness in the middle of the day, NASA says. Turnshek said he remembered traveling as a teen to see a solar eclipse and described it as “deep twilight,” remembering that stars were visible. See the path:

The last total solar eclipse was in 1979, but the last time one went from coast to coast of the U.S. was 1918. This partial eclipse will be viewable in all of North America, according to NASA.

In addition to documenting the eclipse itself, the Pitt team — named the Shadow Bandits — is also tracking and researching shadow bands. Just before and after eclipse, there are ripples in light that move very quickly, said Shandhya Rao, a research professor at Pitt. While there is a common theory on the cause of shadow bands — that they are caused by atmospheric turbulence — this research will help test if that is true.

How to watch in Pittsburgh

Only half-joking, the team told reporters Friday that all the astronomers in Pittsburgh are leaving town on Aug. 21. But if a road trip isn’t an option, here are some tips for watching:

  • Pitt researchers said they expect about an 81 percent solar eclipse in Pittsburgh. Think: a crescent sun instead of a crescent moon. The eclipse is expected to be here from 1:10 to 3:55 p.m. with the 81 percent highpoint around 2:35 p.m.
  • Eighty-one percent eclipse means it will be noticeably darker, even “kinda eerie,” Turnshek said.
  • If you’re stuck at work, the eclipse will be viewable from anywhere, but Rao said going to an open space is probably best. If you’re near trees, she said to look at the shadow of the leaves. “They’ll be crescent-shaped.”
  • Like normal, don’t look directly up at the sun, Rao said, adding to take precautions as always. You can also buy eclipse glasses that will allow you to look at the sun, Turnshek said. (He suggested looking on Amazon.)
  • You can also party from 1:30 to 3:45 p.m. Aug. 21, at the Carnegie Science Center, where you’ll be able to safely see the eclipse and take pictures through solar telescopes, reported the Post-Gazette.
  • Plus, you can also watch the NASA livestream.