Pursuing the path of totality

By day, Kelly Prescher, M.S.’93, D.P.T.’04, is a physical therapist at University of California-San Diego’s Thornton Hospital. In her spare time, she is chair and newsletter editor of the San Diego district of the American Physical Therapy Association. She’s mother to daughter Audrey and partner to her significant other, Doug. But when the moon inserts itself between the earth and the sun, she becomes Kelly Prescher, eclipse-chaser.

“It’s true what they say – the first time you see a total solar eclipse, your first question is, ‘When is the next one?’” she says.

Over the past decade, Prescher has viewed five total solar eclipses, when the moon completely blocks the sun’s bright surface. This “totality” lasts only a few minutes, but Prescher says it’s worth every second.

On one level, a total eclipse makes visible parts of the sun not normally visible to the human eye, such as its corona and prominences. But viewing the phenomenon goes beyond the visual treat, Prescher says.

“It’s very emotional. It’s hard to put into words how you feel when you’re standing at the edge of a lake or in the African desert and suddenly the moon takes this Pac-Man bite out of the sun,” she says. “It’s fascinating.”

Prescher discovered the hobby after she and her daughter moved from Omaha, NE, to San Diego. Wanting to meet people, she began studying astronomy at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and Space Theater. In 1999, she learned about a travel opportunity to Romania to view a total eclipse of the sun. She saved up for her and Audrey to go.

“I was addicted,” she admits. In July, Prescher traveled to Yichang, in the Hebei Province of China, to view the longest total eclipse of this century, during which the moon completely covered the sun for six minutes and 39 seconds at a point over the Pacific Ocean. This year, she and Doug plan to view an eclipse near Tahiti.

“People may wonder why I would travel halfway around the world to see a few minutes of totality,” she admits. But her enthusiasm makes sense given the trips themselves, which have included Africa’s Victoria Falls, Egypt’s Great Sphinx, China’s Great Wall and a seven-day cruise down the Yangtze River.

Interacting with local residents and fellow eclipse-chasers is a bonus, too. Total eclipses occur approximately once every 18 months but in a given location only once every 300 to 400 years, creating a unique individual and group experience.

“In Egypt, 20,000 people were gathered at our site to view the eclipse,” she recalls. “At the last minute we had to move because the Egyptian president decided that was where he wanted to view it. But we still enjoyed great viewing from the mesa we were on.”

Kelly Prescher’s “eclipse canon”
Location                                  Date                            Length of totality

Bucharest, Romania             Aug. 11, 1999             2 minutes, 23 seconds

Zambia, Africa                     June 21, 2001             4 minutes, 57 seconds

Solum, Egypt                      March 29, 2006          4 minutes, 7 seconds

Novosibirsk, Siberia            Aug. 1, 2008               2 minutes, 27 seconds

Yichang, China                  July 22, 2009               5 minutes, 25 seconds

Shedding light on solar eclipses
According to NASA, the moon is about 400 times closer to the earth than the sun, while the sun is about 400 times larger than the moon. That creates the illusion on earth that the two orbs are the same size, enabling the moon to completely block the big star’s light when their paths cross, casting the moon’s shadow on earth and creating a total solar eclipse.

A partial solar eclipse occurs when the sun and moon are not completely in line. An annular eclipse occurs when the two orbs are exactly in line, but the moon’s apparent size is smaller than the sun’s. That makes the sun appear as a very bright ring, or annulus, around the moon.

The path of totality is the track of the moon’s shadow across earth’s surface, typically about 10,000 miles long but only 100 miles or so wide. That path is where eclipse-chasers want to be.

With the sun’s surface visually blocked, viewers can see its less-bright corona, a halo-like plasma “atmosphere” that extends millions of miles into space. Also visible are the sun’s prominences, the whip- and loop-shaped features that extend outward. Because the direct light of the sun is blocked, some brighter stars and planets are visible, too.

Eclipse-chasers like Kelly Prescher closely study the NASA eclipse website for information on weather trends, paths of totality and best viewing locations.

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