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All systems go for total solar eclipse viewing in Salem

NASA Astronaut Don Pettit, a native Oregonian, speaks during a news conference at an OMSI total solar eclipse viewing party Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at the state fairgrounds in Salem, Oregon. Salem is in the path of totality for Monday's solar eclipse. (Photo: Steve Benham/KATU.com)

High clouds began moving in over the state fairgrounds Sunday afternoon, and then thickened to cover the whole sky.

But clouds aren’t expected to ruin the view for total solar eclipse enthusiasts as they flock here Monday morning for a fleeting taste of the shadow of the moon.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit and organizers of Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s total solar eclipse viewing party at the L.B. Amphitheatre were confident the skies would be clear for when the moon blocks all light from the sun for almost two minutes at 10:18 a.m.

“Being a NASA person, you walk to your rocket and you’re strapped in, you lay down and then you find out for some glitch for something, the launch has been scrubbed,” said Pettit, who is from Silverton, Oregon. “I don’t think the total solar eclipse tomorrow is going to be scrubbed.”

“People have assured me that everything is looking great for tomorrow,” said Andrea Edgecombe, the director of events at OMSI, during an afternoon news conference.

Off to the side, OMSI’s Director of Space Science Education Jim Todd confirmed the weather was looking good for the eclipse with a flash of the “OK” signal with his fingers.

OMSI is expecting nearly 9,000 people to pack the amphitheater for what’s being billed as the Great American Eclipse, which will sweep across the entire U.S., starting just above Newport at around 10:15 a.m., and exiting the continent at South Carolina about 90 minutes later. Officials in Oregon have been predicting a million people will pour into the state, a prime viewing spot, for the eclipse.

The museum has been planning for this event for a year and a half, and it sold out its event in April.

“It’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun,” said Edgecombe. “It’s been the biggest and most unique event I’ve worked on.”

She said people from all over the world are expected to come to the fairgrounds, including from Iceland and Japan.

Gates for the event open at 3 a.m. Monday.

OMSI has lined up several speakers who will be hosting presentations related to the eclipse, starting at 6:30 a.m. Those speakers include Pettit, who will be talking about what solar eclipses look like from the International Space Station. Speakers will also include OMSI’s Todd and Jim Brau, a physicist from the University of Oregon.

Portland Taiko will provide musical accompaniment during the eclipse right up until the moment of totality.

And the fairgrounds is one of NASA TV’s official broadcast locations. Salem will be a part of the space agency’s effort to live stream the eclipse as it crosses the country.

Pettit, who has lived on the International Space Station for more than six months, has seen two solar eclipses from space but none from the surface of the earth.

Viewing a solar eclipse from space has one major advantage over viewing one from earth.

“The truly unique thing of being in space is to look at the shadow cast on earth,” Pettit said.

From space, he said, you can see two shadows -- the moon’s umbra, its central, darkest shadow, and its penumbra, which is fainter, far fuzzier and larger – moving across the face of the earth.

“You could see all of this stuff that astronomers hundreds of years ago worked out mathematically, but were never able to see from that (earthly) vantage point,” Pettit said, “but were able to predict that’s what’s going to happen. And now astronauts in orbit can look down and see that these astronomers – using their math – got everything correct.”

The umbra and penumbra are still important for earthbound viewers, however. Viewers from earth must be in the moon’s umbra to see a total eclipse. Those in the moon’s penumbra will only see a partial solar eclipse.

Todd, who said he saw the total solar eclipse of 1979 near Goldendale, Washington, said he’ll have the best job on Monday.

“Tomorrow will be a day that everybody will remember, where they were, what they were doing,” he said. “They’re going to talk about it. It’s going to be a social media explosion.”

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