by Sébastien VUAGNAT / with Kerry SHERIDAN in Charleston Emotional sky-gazers on the US West Coast cheered and applauded Monday as the Sun briefly vanished behind the Moon -- a rare total solar eclipse that will stretch across North America for the first time in nearly a century.
Eclipse chasers and amateur star watchers alike converged in cities along the path of totality, a 70-mile (113-kilometer) wide path running through 14 US states, where the Moon will block out all light from the Sun.
Festivals, rooftop parties, weddings, camping trips and astronomy meet-ups popped up nationwide for what NASA expects will be the most heavily photographed and documented eclipse in modern times, thanks to the era of social media.
At about 1605 GMT, eclipse fans in Lincoln Beach, Oregon were the first to witness the partial phase of the eclipse.
More than 100,000 people have gathered in Madras, Oregon, typically a town of 7,000 for what experts described as perfect viewing conditions.
Totality began at 1716 GMT over Oregon and will end roughly 90 minutes later at 1848 GMT over Charleston, South Carolina.
In Los Angeles, “oohs and aahs” emanated from the crowd of thousands of people gathered at the Griffith Observatory in the hills above the city as the partial eclipse began.
Many hiked to the site to avoid massive traffic jams. Some watchers had fashioned their own pinhole projectors out of cardboard and scotch tape.
In Mexico, where there was a partial eclipse, astronomy buffs set up telescopes fitted with special sun filters in parks and squares in various cities.
“Put down your smartphone and experience this one emotionally, psychologically, physically, rather than just through the screen,” advised prominent US astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
– Telescopes and smartphones -In the US capital, where 81 percent totality will occur, eclipse watchers flocked to the National Air and Space Museum, where solar telescopes were set up for the occasion. The National Zoo staged a viewing party, and national parks across the country organized programs for children.
In downtown Charleston, the last point in the path of totality, crowds of tourists — some in special eclipse T-shirts and star-printed trousers — made their way to the bustling East Coast city’s storied waterfront to stake out a prime spot.
“It is very exciting,” said Kwayera Davis, 34, an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston who was setting up telescopes in a waterfront park.
“Here we will get to see it because we are off on the water, with the shadow going off into the Atlantic.”
One bar had installed outdoor speakers which blasted Bonnie Tyler’s mega-hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — which she was to sing on a cruise ship on Monday.
“I am really pumped up about it,” said t-shirt vendor Jan Dahouas, who is from Atlanta, Georgia.
“I hear it is supposed to be really moving.”
President Donald Trump was expected to watch the partial eclipse from the White House with his wife Melania, his office said.
Many people who have seen eclipses in the past describe the experience as an emotional one, as the sky goes black, birds return to their nests and the air chills.
“It is such an incredible, sensory-overload kind of event,” eclipse-chaser Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist, told AFP of the first total solar eclipse he saw in the United States back in 1970.
– ‘We’re ready!’ -Experts warn that looking directly at an eclipse can cause permanent eye damage.
“The damage can really be permanent and right smack in the center of their vision,” said Vincent Jerome Giovinazzo, director of ophthalmology at Staten Island University Hospital, Northwell Health.
The only safe time to look at it is for those within the path of totality — and only during the brief moments when the Sun is completely blocked.
Everyone else should use proper solar eyeglasses, which are far darker than regular ones, or make a pinhole projector to see the eclipse while avoiding the glare of the Sun.
Cloudy weather and thunderstorms threatened to dash viewers’ hopes in some places, including Charleston.
But so far, it was sunny in South Carolina.
Some of the clearest views were expected along the West Coast and in the Midwest.
Scientists plan to study the eclipse to learn more about the super-hot corona, or outer edge of the Sun.
Astronauts orbiting the Earth aboard the International Space Station are also planning to document the eclipse, and will get to see it three times.
“My first solar eclipse from space… We’re ready!” wrote Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli on Twitter. DM
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