Towns coast-to-coast banking on 2017 solar eclipse

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Montana is the "Big Sky Country," but Nebraskans enjoy a big sky of their own, uncluttered by mountains or clouded by city lights over much of the state.

That's one of the reasons we've enjoyed bringing you Vernon Whetstone's "What's Up?" column every Wednesday, pointing out the beautiful and interesting details of the night sky.

Wide areas of the American Plains are hoping to cash in on a major astronomical event Aug. 21, 2017, when a total eclipse will cross the United States from northern Oregon, across Idaho, diagonally across Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina.

The greatest point of totality is in Southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, but there will be plenty of darkness for hundreds of miles either side of totality.

North Platte bills itself as one of the most accessible viewing places, located on Interstate 80 on the edge of the Nebraska Sandhills.

Others vying for astro-tourism dollars include Madras, Oregon, which says it has the best odds for clear weather; a point in Perry County, Missouri, where the sun, moon and Mississippi River will meet; Nashville will be the biggest city under total eclipse but Hopkinsville, Kentucky, an hour north claims it will have the greatest degree of eclipse anywhere, staying "total" longer; and South Carolina claims it will offer the closest eclipse-watching for 100 million people on the East Coast.

When the moon passes directly between the Earth and sun, it creates a zone about 65 miles wide called the path of totality rolling across the Earth's surface at 2,000 mph. Stars and planets come out, and the sun's corona glows in a perfect circle around the dark side of the moon as the effect of a sunset appears in all directions.

Astronomical groups are already reserving rooms in the Teton Range, Jackson Hole and Casper, Wyoming, will host a national astronomical convention.

It all could be for naught if the weather doesn't cooperate, of course.

Highway 26 crosses Wyoming entirely within the path of the total eclipse, meaning eclipse watchers could drive more than 400 mils without leaving a prime viewing zone.

McCook is about 70 mile south of North Platte, which puts it just outside the darkest part of the eclipse, but still about 90 percent of totality.

If serious astronomers are anything like storm chasers, they will be quick to travel to the point where they'll get the clearest view of the sky.

Could that turn out to be Southwest Nebraska?

Maybe local hotels should keep a few rooms open for Aug. 21, 2017 ...

Check out NASA's 2017 Eclipse site.

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