Queen’s gears up for rare 2024 solar eclipse
On April 8, 2024, the skies above Kingston, Ontario, will bear witness to a showstopping celestial event – a total solar eclipse. Local organizations, including Tourism Kingston, the City of Kingston, and St. Lawrence Parks, are preparing to welcome thousands of visitors who will flock to the city to observe this historic event – one which only occurs every few hundred years.
As Kingston and Queen’s prepare, Dr. Robert Knobel, Head of the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy, is spearheading efforts to ensure the community can safely observe and learn from this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
A glimpse into cosmic choreography
Solar eclipses have captivated humanity for centuries, offering a rare glimpse into the cosmic dance of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. The most recent occurrence of a total solar eclipse seen in Kingston stretches back nearly 700 years to 1349, and the city won’t be privy to such an event again until 2399.
“A total solar eclipse happens when the Moon aligns precisely between the Sun and Earth, completely covering the face of the Sun and casting its shadow upon our planet,” explains Dr. Knobel. “To see it, you have to be somewhere within a narrow path of totality, which Kingston happens to be on for the one occurring in April.”
However, not all solar eclipses are created equal. The extent to which the Sun is covered by the Moon determines whether it is a partial, annular, or total eclipse. A partial eclipse takes place when the Moon covers only a portion of the Sun, with Earth experiencing the penumbra rather than the Moon’s deepest shadow, the umbra.
An annular eclipse happens when the Sun, Moon, and Earth align perfectly, but the Moon is at its farthest point from Earth, preventing complete solar masking. This results in a “ring of fire” encircling the Moon’s periphery.
The frequency of total solar eclipses varies slightly between the northern and southern hemispheres due to orbital patterns. In the northern hemisphere, more total solar eclipses occur, whereas the southern hemisphere experiences more annular eclipses.
Solar eclipses have played a pivotal role in advancing our understanding of the universe. These phenomena, once seen as omens or signs of impending change, have evolved into scientific opportunities. Over time, people’s fascination with eclipses led to the development of mathematical and astronomical methods for predicting when they would occur, ultimately contributing to the scientific understanding of the solar system’s mechanics.
“One groundbreaking discovery resulting from solar eclipses was the verification of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” says Dr. Knobel. “During a total solar eclipse in 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington conducted measurements of starlight bending around the sun, providing experimental evidence for Einstein’s theory.”
Solar eclipses also laid the foundation for studying other celestial phenomena, such as planetary movements called “transits” – events where planets pass in front of distant stars. Observations of these transits enable astronomers to study exoplanets and their atmospheres, expanding our knowledge of the cosmos.
The educational opportunities stemming from the eclipse are a focal point for Dr. Knobel and Queen’s. Members of the Queen’s Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy department have curated eclipse-themed educational activities suitable for various age groups. These activities include crafting pinhole cameras, creating hole punch art, maintaining eclipse observation logs, and even how to simulate an eclipse.
“It is hoped that the eclipse will inspire curiosity, and spark a passion for scientific exploration, particularly among school-aged children,” Dr. Knobel says.
In an effort to encourage youth to learn about science and the universe, Queen’s Physics is also recruiting volunteers and ambassadors to help educate the community and to distribute specialized Queen’s-branded eclipse glasses. These glasses will ensure a safe viewing experience, as looking directly at an eclipse without proper eye protection can cause severe vision damage.
In the lead-up to April 8, 2024, the university will organize lectures, events, and collaborations across various faculties and research areas beyond astronomy. On the day of the eclipse, Dr. Knobel hopes that students, faculty, and staff will seize the opportunity to witness this phenomenon firsthand, by taking a moment to step outside that afternoon. The total solar eclipse will begin at 2:09 PM, reaching its peak and three-minute totality at 3:23 PM, and finally, ending at 4:34 PM.
“You don’t have to be an astronomer to appreciate an eclipse. This event is something that we hope people will enjoy and experience in their own way. Queen’s is happy to be involved and looks forward to being able to share it with the Kingston community and beyond.”
For more information, resources, and updates on community activities or to find out how to get involved, please visit the Queen’s Physics Eclipse website.
Mark your calendars: On Saturday, October 14, a partial solar eclipse will be visible in Kingston, between 12 noon and 2:25 PM, peaking at 1:14 PM. Queen’s Observatory will be hosting an open house, with a talk by Livia Comeau “The Mid-Day Midnight Sky,” where she will share insights on eclipses, using solar safety glasses, and will help attendees experience the partial eclipse safely through the observatory’s solar telescopes (weather permitting). Visit the events calendar for more details.
Note: This story originally appeared in the Queen's Gazette.