Ascension Parish residents Ben and Ashley Toman should be in Casper, Wyoming, or possibly at Carhenge in tiny Alliance, Nebraska, on Aug. 21 when the sun starts to disappear behind the moon — with prime viewing there shortly before 11:30 a.m. Central Standard Time.

They intend to have ringside seats in what will be among the prime viewing areas for the full solar eclipse, which will be visible in a swath of North America that day with much of the rest of the country seeing a partial eclipse.

The awe-inspiring astronomical alignment of the heavens has captured imaginations and sparked fears since the dawn of man, and Baton Rouge-area residents are preparing for the eclipse's arrival in many ways.

Some like the Tomans are hitting the road for the fullest experience. A handful of Louisiana college physics students will be in Carbondale, Illinois, conducting experiments and making a first-ever type of video broadcast of the eclipse.

Back in Baton Rouge, Westdale Heights science teacher Mary Legoria will be preparing her students at the elementary school on College Drive in Baton Rouge when the eclipse reaches the Capital City shortly before noon.

Highland Road Park Observatory, meanwhile, expects crowds of schoolchildren and the curious to flock there. Even work-a-day folks on a busy Monday may take time off for a glimpse of the rare event. 

"This is definitely one of those times where you're going to become aware of the rest of the universe working around you," said Ben Toman, 42, a musician and amateur astronomer.

Total solar eclipses happen when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth along just right section of the moon's elliptical orbit. The moon crosses in front of the exact middle of the sun and casts a shadow on Earth, appearing to block out the entire disk of the sun. As the moon continues on its orbit, its shadow continues to move along the Earth.

Viewers on Earth experience this moving lunar shadow as an ominous black disk appearing to slowly consume the bright light of the sun and turn day into night.

Total eclipses cause animals to behave oddly, stars to appear during the day and light to take on a different quality. The down-is-up experience has given rise to myths for millennia. The Chippewa fired flaming arrows into the sky in an attempt to relight the sun while Peruvian tribes shot them to scare the creature thought to be attacking the sun, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac.  

Can't see the video below? Click here

 

Dana Browne, LSU professor and associate chair of physics, said total solar eclipses happen about once a year somewhere in the world but are rare in any one place, usually occurring about once every 400 years in the same spot.

Not only does the alignment of Earth, moon and sun have to be perfect, but Browne and other scientists note that the sun and moon also happen to appear to be about the same size in our sky. When the moon covers the sun in a total eclipse, it does with a virtually perfect match, allowing viewers to see the sun's corona, the outer atmosphere of wispy bands of super-heated plasma.  

"It's an accident that the sun and the moon are about the same size (in the sky)," Browne said.

According to NASA, the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun but also 400 times closer to the Earth than the sun. 

The last time even parts of the United States experienced a total solar eclipse was on Feb. 26, 1979. Democrat Jimmy Carter was president, and "Star Wars" character Luke Skywalker was still a Tatooine youth learning to be a Jedi, like his father before him.    

This time, the moon will cast at least some shadow across the entire continental United States — which means some portion of the sun is blocked out — but "totality" will happen only in a 70-mile-wide band stretching diagonally from Oregon to South Carolina, NASA maps show. The last time a total eclipse has been seen from one end of the country to the other was on June 8, 1918, according to NASA.

Although a total eclipse won't be seen anywhere in Louisiana, the state will experience 70 percent to 80 percent coverage of the sun.

+11 
eclipse map US

A map of the United States showing the path of totality for the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse. Photo Credits: NASA/Goddard/SVS/Ernie Wright

The full lunar shadow — both the areas of the total and partial eclipse — will take about four hours to move across the United States, between 11:05 a.m. and 3:09 p.m. Central Standard Time, according to NASA. The lunar shadow will take about three hours to cross Baton Rouge, according to Highland Road Park Observatory, lasting from 11:57 a.m. to 2:54 p.m. Peak coverage of the sun will happen around 1:29 p.m.

While it is safe to view only a total eclipse with the naked eye or with unfiltered cameras and binoculars, viewing any partial eclipse without protection can cause eye injury.

Mary Legoria has been working for months on the viewing plans for her school, Westdale Heights Academic Magnet. Legoria oversees the school's science lab and is a stickler for safety. With the potential for severe eye damage, Legoria is drilling WHAM students in the importance of safety.

"We always say safety first, then learning, then fun," she said. "It always comes last because if you do fun first, people get hurt."

Early on, she said, she turned to Chris Kersey, the manager of the Highland Road Park Observatory, for help.

Following Kersey’s advice, she went online, found a NASA-certified vendor and ordered enough safety glasses for students to come outdoors and watch the eclipse one grade at a time. Some schools are buying them for all students to view at one time, she said, but Kersey warned her that not all kids are going to want to watch for that long.

Kersey also gave her a safety suggestion for the adults at the school: “You don’t want adults to have glasses; you want them looking at the kids.”

At St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge, the science teachers are still fine-tuning their game plan. Biology teacher Shelly O’Dowd said they are likely to buy some glasses, but are also considering making their own viewing devices.

“We’re talking about creating the pinhole projectors out of everyday materials or possibly creating them and printing them on the 3D printer,” O’Dowd said.

Toman, who is a member of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, has seen two partial eclipses but never a total one and so is headed northwest to see a total eclipse. He's also playing the odds.

Toman said other society members determined that Casper and Alliance have the least statistical chance of cloud cover this time of year — 88 percent chance of no clouds in Casper. Combine good weather with the Tomans' desire to see parts of the West, and you have a weeklong road trip to Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons and elsewhere in a minivan stuffed with camping gear, telescopes and binoculars.

Following the advice of veteran eclipse watchers, Toman said, he doesn't plan to be fiddling much with his sky-watching gear during the 2 minutes and 20 seconds of totality. He wants to look with his own eyes.

"I just want to see the whole spectacle of the part of the Earth that I'm in that's being blocked out by the moon, you know," he said. 

Toman said Alliance, three hours from Casper, and its auto-based replica of the ancient British wonder Stonehenge is his backup plan should Wyoming prove too cloudy.

Carbondale, Illinois, which will see another total eclipse in 2024 and has dubbed itself the "Eclipse Crossroads," may just be "x" marks the spot. It's just a few miles from the spot of the longest total eclipse Aug. 21 and will have an eclipse totality of 2 minutes, 38 seconds, according to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale's eclipse webpages. 

Because of Carbondale's long totality, students from LSU, McNeese State, Delgado Community College and Louisiana Tech will be launching two high-altitude balloons from SIU's Saluki Stadium about noon on Aug. 21 to conduct atmospheric measurements during the eclipse. One of the balloons will have a camera payload that will provide a live feed of the eclipse from 100,000 feet in the air and will be broadcast on NASA’s website at https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/.

Browne, the LSU physics professor, said students and faculty hope to video the shadow of the moon moving across the surface of the Earth in real time.

The aerial video is part of a NASA-sponsored project being conducted through the Louisiana, Montana and other space grant consortia. The video will be the first time high-altitude footage of a total solar eclipse has been broadcast live, Montana consortium officials said in an LSU news release earlier this summer.

Many of Mary Legoria’s friends will be traveling north to stake out prime spots along the eclipse’s 14-state path, but she's staying put.

When she does travel, as she did earlier this year to see a famous volcano in Washington state, her mind drifts back to Baton Rouge.

“I went to Mount St. Helens this year, and the first thing I think is, ‘I wish my kids were here,” Legoria told one of her classes Friday. “And when I say my kids, I’m talking about you guys.“

Not all her students will be at school, though.

Fifth-graders Aidan Johnson and Rini Cowart, both 10, are heading to different parts of Tennessee to see the total eclipse.

Cowart and Johnson said they learned a lot about eclipses in fourth-grade science. They will have safety glasses, as their teacher would advise, but Johnson points to an exception.

“When it becomes total, you can actually take your glasses off for some of it," he said with a smile.

Cowart said her family's approach to safety also includes their dog, Lucy.

"My whole family has glasses, including my dog," she said.

Pullout: Some websites on the eclipse 

Check out this NASA animation of the path of totality for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, these eclipse totality maps and a teacher's eclipse tool kit: 

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/nasa-moon-data-provides-more-accurate-2017-eclipse-path

https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4518

http://laspace.lsu.edu/teacheclipse/

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.