This Jan.15,2010 combination of three separate photographs shows the various stages of an annular solar eclipse seen over Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena,File)
In Mad Men’s “seven Twenty Three” episode, Don Draper’s kids get inside a cardboard camera obscura to watch a solar eclipse with their teacher. Would today’s kids make the same box to watch a solar eclipse or is there a better way? As luck would have it, we’ll be witnessing a partial solar eclipse in the Bay Area on Sunday May 20. The annular solar eclipse will start at 5.15pm, peak around 6.30pm and end around 7.40pm. I talked with Jonathan Braidman, instructor and astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center to get a few tips to watch the solar eclipse safely and get kids excited about a rare event.
In the US, the last one was in 1994. The next one will be in 2023. Believe me, you’ll want to be outside for such an event. That movie theater date can wait.
Explaining a Solar Eclipse
Kids need to understand what happens to realize how extraordinary a solar eclipse is. Basically, it will be night during the day and that’s pretty awesome. A solar eclipse happens when the moon gets between the Earth and the sun, therefore blocking the sun from our view. An annular solar eclipse (that’s the one on Sunday) is when the Moon is close to the farthest point of its orbit, thereby obscuring only part of the Sun during the eclipse because its apparent diameter is smaller than the Sun’s. We’re talking relative here, you know that right?
Now, since the Earth is round (unless you live in Lancaster and still believe that the Earth is flat), people experience the eclipse differently depending on where they live on the planet. We are lucky that in the Bay Area, we’ll see a partial solar eclipse on Sunday in the shape of a C or a crescent. “The cool thing is, as the moon moves past the sun, the crescent will rotate clockwise until it’s facing west,” explains Jonathan Braidman. To help visualize the concept, I found this animated video that shows two children trying to understand what’s going on during a lunar or solar eclipse. It’s generic (no annular/ring of fire) but simple and to the point:
Education Video for Kids to Understand Solar and Lunar Eclipses
Now on to crafts of astronomic proportions! Here are a few things you can do with the kids.
Make a Solar Eclipse Model at Home
Use props! You can reproduce a solar eclipse at home and shine some light on the subject with different sized balls, items you probably already have in your cupboards. I created this example of a solar eclipse simulation based on various solar eclipse models but you can use your imagination and make up your own version. In my world, this is what you’ll need:
- a flashlight or table lamp (that’s the Sun)
- a soccer or soft ball (that’s the Earth)
- a table tennis (ping pong) ball (that’s the Moon)
- Wire or string
- 3 people or 2 people if you’re willing to hang the Earth from your ceiling
- First, you’ll need a dark room to do this which makes bedtime an ideal timeframe. With tape, secure the wire or string to the two balls. If you only have 2 people (child and parent), pin or tape the Earth to the ceiling, with the wire long enough so that the Earth hangs at flashlight level. If you have 3 people, have one person hold the wire with the Earth at arm’s length, one person hold the wire with the Moon at arm’s length, one person stand behind the light source. The person with the Earth stands in the middle of the room, the person with the flashlight against the wall. Showtime!
- When the room is completely dark, switch on the table lamp or flashlight. Have the person hold having the light source shine them straight at the Earth.
- Now there’s going to be a little bit of experimentation to find where the Moon should be so that the eclipse will work. You want the moon to be between the Sun and the Earth at a distance where the Moon’s shadow will obscure the Earth when directly before the Sun. Sorry, long sentence. Was that clear?
- Once you find that distance, the person holding the Moon is going to orbit around the Earth, slowly (not 24 hours but a minute would be great).
- When the moon stands between the Sun and the Earth, you can explain how the shadow creates a “partial night” on Earth despite the fact that it’s still daytime.
Build a Pinhole Camera
As you’ve probably heard, watching the sun during a solar eclipse is as dangerous as watching the sun without the solar eclipse. Meaning, DON’T DO IT. Kids can’t look directly at the sun but they can create a pinhole camera to look at a reflection of the sun on a harmless piece of white paper. Here are two fun crafts to create your own solar eclipse viewing camera:
- Life’s Little Mysteries How To Build a Shoebox Pinhole Camera – a 2-minute instructional that’s simple and uses only a shoebox, foil, white paper, tape, a pin and an xacto knife.
- The Exploratorium’s Make a Pinhole Projector – same idea as the shoebox except using one of those long UPS shipping tubes. The longer the tube, the bigger the sun image your child will be looking at!
- Failing shoeboxes or shipping tubes, you can overlap your hands with fingers at right angles and look at the shadow on a piece of white paper. The holes between the fingers are pinholes.
Create a Solar Eclipse Family Movie
According to Space on msnbc.com, here are the steps for optimal solar eclipse photography and future bragging rights. These guys are pros so you’ll have to tailor the advice to your photo equipment and capabilities.
What I suggest goes beyond the photo session. Once you have a bunch of solar eclipse photographs, you can stitch the shots together to create a video of the experience and have your child narrate what it was like. For narrated slideshows, you can use Windows Movie Maker or Fotobabble. If you prefer a music video, check out Animoto and use the Star Wars themes if they have them!
Now if you have any brilliant ideas, please add them in the comments. I’d love to hear how other parents get their kids interested in astronomy!