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Planetarium sees solar eclipse as opportunity to raise interest in astronomy

Planetarium sees solar eclipse as opportunity to raise interest in astronomy

(KSL TV, File)



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SALT LAKE CITY — With an impending deep solar eclipse overshadowing their efforts, the Clark Planetarium hosted a gala Thursday to foster excitement for astronomy education.

In anticipation a solar eclipse that will be viewable across much of the United States on Aug. 21, the Clark Planetarium has renewed its efforts to offer education resources and draw excitement to its programs for students with the help of former NASA scientist Phil Plait.

"Total eclipses are rare, and we haven't had one in the United States for quite some time," said Tom Beckett, an organizer of the planetarium gala. "This is a great opportunity to use an astronomical event to get people interested in astronomy."

Though Salt Lake City will not see the totality of the eclipse — only a 91 percent partial coverage — people may see the complete event from as close as Driggs, Idaho.

The planetarium's gala is a fundraiser to create astronomy education resources.

Plait returned to the planetarium for his third speaking appearance. Known as the "Bad Astronomer," he offered a keynote speech to explain the mechanics behind the eclipse and dispel some of the misunderstandings about eclipses.

"There are a lot of eclipse myths like, if you look at it, you'll go blind," Plait said.

Plait, who began public speaking while he was working for on the Hubble telescopes, said he sees his speaking engagements as something of a stand-up routine for science. He refers to himself as a science communicator and earned the title of the "Bad Astronomer" through his efforts at dispelling scientific misconceptions and creating humor around the concepts.

The risk associated with viewing an eclipse, he explained, comes after the roughly two-minute period of totality where the moon passes in front of the sun. That period of time allows the pupil of the eye to dilate, adjusting to the shadow cast by the moon, and the risk of injury follows as the moon continues forward, suddenly exposing the brightness of the sun once again.

Plait noted that despite this effect, he has yet to encounter a documented case of anyone becoming totally blinded by a passing eclipse.

"You can lose a little bit of your vision forever, or all of it for a short time, but your eye can heal," he said.

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Beckett said there will be educators and telescopes available at the planetarium and throughout Salt Lake County during the eclipse to accommodate viewers who are not able to drive to Idaho to see the full eclipse.

Beckett also said the planetarium will have a viewing party as the Earth comes into alignment with Saturn and the sun, creating the best chance for people to see the rings of Saturn for another 17 years.

Email: rmorgan@deseretnews.com

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