What it is, where to see it, and how to view it safely.

By Grace Elkus
Updated August 07, 2017
Total Eclipse
Credit: DAVID NUNUK/Getty Images

This year has offered some incredible stargazing opportunities. In February, a snow moon, a comet, and a lunar eclipse were all visible on the same day. In early June, Saturn was at its brightest. And on August 21, a total solar eclipse will be available to people across the continental U.S. (weather permitting, of course).

Solar eclipses occur when the Earth passes through the moon’s shadow, blocking the sun’s light. An eclipse is considered a total solar eclipse when the entirety of the sun is blocked. The area where this occurs is called the “path of totality.”

For the upcoming eclipse, the path of totality will be approximately 70 miles wide, extending from Oregon (where the eclipse will be visible in the morning) to South Carolina (where it will be visible in the afternoon). At these locations along the path of totality, viewers will be treated to an awe-inspiring experience, according to Jonathan Kemp, a telescope specialist at Middlebury College Observatory.

“The skies can dim and change color, the atmospheric temperature can cool slightly, animal behavior and sounds may change, and planets and bright stars may become visible,” Kemp says. “For a period of only several minutes, the sky will darken and an amazing transformation will happen during the short duration of the eclipse.”

For those not along the path, the sun in partial eclipse can be seen (though, due to cloud cover, viewing success is better west of the Mississippi River than it is east). New York City dwellers can expect the partial eclipse to begin at 1:23 p.m. and end at 4:01 p.m., with the most pronounced views occurring at 2:45 p.m.

“At least roughly half of the solar disc will be blocked by the moon for just about all of the continental U.S., meaning that the moon wil appear to take a bite out of the sun, so to speak,” Kemp says. “While not as amazing as totality, this can still make for a fantastic eclipse viewing.”

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The last total solar eclipse of the transcontinental coast-to-coast variety was in 1918—and the next one won’t occur until April 8, 2024—so we're thinking you'll want to check this one out. If you do, you'll need proper viewing equipment. While sunglasses are not sufficient, eclipse glasses are supplied by many public libraries and can be purchased online. Here's a complete guide to solar eclipse safety.