The smell of kettle corn and food truck burgers filled the air surrounding the Carl Perkins Building Monday afternoon, as hundreds gathered for a spectacle unseen in the U.S. for nearly four decades.
The Solar Eclipse Event at the Perkins Building and Hummel Planetarium gave EKU students and visitors the opportunity to view a solar eclipse with 95 percent totality — percentage of the Sun covered by the Moon — the highest in Richmond’s recent history. Cutting a path of totality from Oregon to South Carolina, the 2017 eclipse is the first total eclipse to be visible from the continental U.S. since 1979.
Food vendors like Apollo’s Pizza and KONA Ice set up shop in the parameters of the Perkins Building at 11:30 a.m. Attendees played cornhole and other games for free prizes while others watched the start of the eclipse through their much-coveted “eclipse glasses” – given to them free by the planetarium, but limited to one per family. Others filed into the planetarium to watch the eclipse from the safety of a live stream.
Those who wanted to be closer would have to board a shuttle down a gravel driveway and into EKU’s astronomy observation deck. The shuttles ran for new passengers every 15 minutes from 12 to 4:30 p.m. In the roofless structure, EKU physics and astronomy professor Marco Ciocca guided eclipse viewers through a phenomenon he’d been studying for years.
“I’ve seen one of these from Richmond before – it was about 70 percent coverage,” Ciocca recalled, referring to the 1979 eclipse. “Unless you already knew about it and were interested though, you probably wouldn’t know about it. This one has everyone interested.”
This newfound interest has created many questions that astronomers such as Ciocca have had to answer since the eclipse buzz began.
“I always get asked if this eclipse is total or not,” Ciocca said. “And I’m always sorry to say that it’s not.”
Regardless, the observation deck was packed Monday afternoon. Dozens of EKU students, Richmond residents and visitors from across the country passed around eclipse glasses, looking through telescopes and taking Snapchat photos through filtered lenses provided by Ciocca. Spectators asked Ciocca questions about the eclipse as he did his best to answer them.
“I think people have been more aware since the talk over this began,” Ciocca said, referring to the same awareness that sent thousands flocking west into Hopkinsville to view an eclipse with 100 percent totality. “People have the tendency of not wanting to know more about science, but once they buy into it, they’re interested.”
The eclipse first came into fruition around 1 p.m. A circular wedge cut into the right side of the moon as spectators took their first glimpses. As 2 p.m. neared, traffic in the south side of campus came to a near-standstill as shuttles ran spectators to the observation deck in increasing quantities. Chatter inside the observation deck gradually became quieter as the sky grew dim. Most started reaching for their cameras. Others chose to capture it with only with their eyes.
The eclipse passed through its highest phase of totality after two minutes. As the moon escaped the center of the sun, people drew to Cocoa for answers. Ciocca said he hopes they’ve gained at least one thing: awareness.
“We need awareness of the world that surrounds us,” Ciocca said. “Awareness of the fact that you always have nature to deal with and that you can’t control it. The moon is rotating around the Earth, the Earth is rotating around the Sun, and those 3 bodies create this. We know it’s coming– that’s why we’re not afraid of it. If you’re a caveman and you see the sun disappearing, you get scared. More interest in science is better for everybody, because we’re still just cavemen who want to know more and not be scared.”
After the eclipse, the planetarium hosted two educational children’s shows, “Earth, Moon, and Sun” at 3:30 p.m. and “Exploding Universe” at 4:30 p.m. Both included a virtual tour of the solar system and were free for the first 194 guests.