Warming up to the eclipse with Mr. Eclipse 

By Michelle Kearns

Published on | Last Updated

Eclipse Sequence Above Three Trees – 2017 Total Solar Eclipse / Photo: Fred Espenak

A retired NASA astrophysicist who goes by “Mr. Eclipse” and has seen 24 eclipses all over the world, including Antarctica, came to Buffalo to explain to an audience waht people should look for as the moon covers the sun for three minutes and 45 seconds in the afternoon of Monday, April 8.

“It’s more than just a ring of light around the sun,” said Fred Espenak, author of books and atlases about eclipses. His talk in February was part of a series of events on the Buffalo State University campus coordinated by the school’s Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium. Options range from planetarium programs to painting and skygazing, made-for-the-eclipse-year beer tasting and an April 8 Eclipse Fest with food trucks, live music, swag and experts on hand to guide sky watching.

Mr. Eclipse says the totality view, when the moon covers the sun and leaves only the corona rays visible, does not disappoint. “It’s these feathery streamers and there’s structure to it. It’s like silken threads. It’s so unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” said Espenak. “The sun has vanished, and you just see this black disc in the sky surrounded by this luminous corona and it’s exquisitely beautiful and it just sends shivers down your back and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. It’s almost supernatural. It just doesn’t seem like a natural event, it’s so far out of our everyday experience and it’s just incredibly beautiful.”

Fred Espenak and his many telescopes – 2017 Total Solar Eclipse / Photo: Fred Espenak

Espenak’s passion for eclipses began as a boy when he saw a partial eclipse and the shadows of crescent sun shapes through leaves on a tree at his grandparent’s place in Long Island. Curious, he did some research and discovered that after he turned 18, he could see a total in North Carolina. He waited, borrowed the family car, and drove 600 miles to see his first total eclipse.

His passion for eclipse watching has endured. He does admit some trips are disappointing. For six of his 30 trips, clouds got in the way, and he didn’t see much.

“Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate,” Espenak said. “That’s very disappointing when that happens, but you try again.”

April, he admitted, is a month when the risk of rain and clouds getting in the way is greater. “They don’t sing that song about April showers for nothing,” Espenak said. “It’s a time when the atmosphere is very unstable, and transitioning from winter to spring and summer … You get a lot of rain and precipitation that time of year along most of the eastern United States. So it’s dicey.”

Even so, there is hope, he said. “I’ve been looking at satellite images of the United States shot over the past 15-20 years and there are plenty of days when the weather is perfect on any location along the eclipse track, including New York,” he said. “It’s a matter of luck.”

Espenak’s own luck has been helped by the eclipses. He met his future wife on a 1995 trip to see one in India. A 1991 eclipse in Mexico was another memorable experience because the sun was almost directly overhead. And, at 6 1/2 minutes, the eclipse was unusually long.

After a career as an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Espenak has stayed connected to the celestial. He retired to a part of Arizona where light pollution doesn’t get in the way and the stars and planets are easy to see.

“I’ve got an observatory here,” he said. “I’m here for the dark skies.”

This year on April 8, Espenak will trying for good views in Mexico, not Buffalo.

“That has, statistically speaking, the best probability of good skies,” he said, adding that anything can happen. “It’s no guarantee. It could be cloudy in Mexico and totally clear in Buffalo.”

For more information on the Buffalo eclipse including events & offerings visit our landing page at visitbuffaloniagara.com/buffalo-eclipse-2024

Michelle Kearns headshot

Michelle Kearns

As a former Buffalo News Reporter, teacher & member of a university communications team, I love sharing stories about Buffalo & the unexpected people, places & happenings here. It is a thrill to make new discoveries, and take in the city - & the Cheerios air! - as VBN's new communications manager.