The month of August derives its meaning from the Latin word augere, which means to increase. Augustus was a title given to Roman Emperors and it means esteemed or venerable.

All of us will have a chance to become more esteemed, venerable and worthy of respect this month as we watch and become aware of the long-awaited and much-discussed Great American Eclipse on Aug. 21. Our knowledge and appreciation of our true place in the solar system also will increase as we see and experience any or all of this incredible celestial and terrestrial event.

This will be the first total solar eclipse to completely cross our country from the west to the east since June 8, 1918. That one followed a similar path but started a little farther north on the west coast and ended a little farther south on the east. That one was part of Saros Cycle 126 and this one will be a part of Saros Cycle 145.

A Saros cycle is the time it takes for the relative geometry of an eclipse to repeat again. That time is 18 years, 11 days and 8 hours. Specifically, it is three interlocking cycles repeating – the synodic month (all the phases of the moon), the Draconic or nodal year (the time that it takes the sun to travel from the north to the south node all the way around the zodiac), and the anomalistic month (the time it takes from one perigee to the next in the moon’s orbit around the earth).

At any given time there are about 40 active Saros cycles. Each cycle lasts 1,200 to 1,400 years after which those specific characteristics no longer repeat and the cycle gets retired. This eclipse on Aug. 21 is part of Saros cycle 145, which means it is directly related to the total solar eclipse that traveled across Europe on Aug. 11, 1999. That one started over the English Riviera, and continued over Turkey, Iran and India until the lunar shadow cone lifted off the earth in the Bay of Bengal.

The eclipse this month will be similar and last about the same amount of time, about 21/2 minutes. The major difference is that the lunar shadow brushes across the spherical earth 120 degrees farther west. The U.S. will be the only country to see this great eclipse, but all of North America will see at least a partial eclipse.

If you stay in Maine or New England for this eclipse, you will only get to see about 60 percent of the sun covered by the moon. You need to be near the center line of a 68-mile wide path that the moon’s shadow will carve across this country to experience all of the incredible dynamics that will be happening over that very short period of time.

Then you will individually become the fourth body in a perfect alignment of our three closest and most familiar natural celestial bodies. Shadows will get so incredibly sharp on Earth that you will see individual hairs on your arms and head as the sun reduces to a point source. About 10 seconds before totality, the lunar shadow will begin to sweep over you at nearly 2,000 miles per hour, creating racing shadow bands across the landscape. Bailey’s beads will form for a few seconds due to the last rays of sunlight traveling between the mountains and through the valleys on the moon. The very last flash of this light will make the sun look like a giant diamond ring, only far more valuable than any diamond ring on earth could ever be.

Then the real drama just begins. The temperature will drop about 10 degrees, the birds and animals will go to sleep, the winds will nearly cease, it will get as dark as a deep twilight, and planets and some of the brighter stars will appear in the sky. The sun will be in Leo then, so we will see the star Regulus just to the left of the sun, and then Jupiter and Spica a little farther to the left. Mars will be just to the right of the sun and Venus will be a little farther to the right. The brightest star in our sky, Sirius, will be easily visible about 15 degrees below Venus. It may appear as if a giant hole has been torn open in our daytime sky, revealing some of what is up there at that time but totally overpowered by the brilliant light of the sun.

It will look like a giant dimmer switch has turned out the sun completely. That is when the true beauty of our sun can finally reveal itself for a very brief and incredibly intense 21/2 minutes. The corona – or atmosphere of the sun – will glow two solar diameters all around the sun. It will exhibit incredible detail in hundreds of intricate streamers shimmering all around the sun like a living crown or halo of pure light.

This corona is always there, but ironically can only be seen and appreciated when the disk of the sun is completely covered by our moon. Those few minutes will also be the only time that you can look at the sun safely without any filters.

None of those indescribable effects will happen for anyone not witnessing totality at the right place and time. Nature is incredibly precise and accurate, and always on time.

All too quickly there will appear an even brighter diamond ring as the moon’s shadow will have cleared the sun. Daytime rapidly returns as the dimmer switch turns the sun back on and everything starts to return to normal. It will still take about an hour and a half before the sun appears fully round once more.

However, during those extremely short 21/2 minutes, people will have a chance to catch a very brief glimpse of reality itself. Only for those 150 seconds will the true grandeur of where we live all the time begin to reveal itself. This is the ultimate shadow play. The moon always has a shadow cone, about 250,000 miles long, and the earth always has one stretching into space about four times that distance. So the earth and the moon are always wearing giant wizard’s caps. It’s only when these shadow caps intersect and you are in the right place at the right time, that the magic happens and you begin to understand where we really are and the incredible motions always being generated by our great speed around the sun.

We and our whole family of planets are always moving in a spiraling vortex around the sun, which in turn is moving at about 500,000 miles per hour around the center of our galaxy. We are performing a continuous, intricate, ever-changing, incredibly complicated dance of immense power and grace through the galaxy and universe, and we are not even aware of it or the real significance of that to our individual lives. Hopefully some of our ignorance will be lifted during this event, even if you can’t see it directly. Watch a live feed of the real action on the NASA channel or slooh.com. Then get ready for the next total solar eclipse in the United States on April 8, 2024, less than seven years away. That one will pass right over Maine and the moon’s shadow will pass over Mt. Katahdin, our highest point.

There are still many interesting events going on in the sky this month, as there are every month, but everything will pale in comparison to this eclipse. Jupiter is inching closer to Spica in Virgo and will set around 11 p.m. Saturn will stay up for most of the night in Scorpius now, just to the left of Antares. Brilliant Venus rises around 4 a.m. in Gemini. The Perseid Meteor Shower peaks on the 11th and 12th, but the moon will wash out much of it, leaving only about 30 meteors per hour visible in the short window before the moon rises around 11 p.m.

August highlights

Aug. 3. The moon passes just north of Saturn this morning. The Messenger spacecraft was launched to Mercury in 2004.

Aug. 4. The Phoenix mission was launched to Mars in 2007.

Aug. 6. The Curiosity Rover was launched to Mars in 2012.

Aug. 7. Full moon is at 2:11 p.m. This is also called the Sturgeon, Green Corn or Blueberry Moon. There will be a partial lunar eclipse in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Aug. 12. The Perseid Meteor Shower peaks tonight. Look for meteors well before the peak.

Aug. 14. Last-quarter moon is at 9:15 a.m.

Aug. 21. New moon is at 2:30 p.m. The Total Solar Eclipse happens today around noon.

Aug. 25. The moon passes just north of Jupiter. In 2003 the Spitzer Infrared space telescope was launched.

Aug. 29. First-quarter moon is at 4:13 a.m.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.

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