A former NASA contractor regaled science, technology, engineering and math students at Walker Valley High School with stories of the sun Thursday, just in time for Monday’s total solar …
A former NASA contractor regaled science, technology, engineering and math students at Walker Valley High School with stories of the sun Thursday, just in time for Monday’s total solar eclipse, which will be visible in this region of the U.S.
Michael Genest, who boasts a 37-year career working on human space flight operations with NASA, spoke of the science behind solar eclipses and offered tips for safe viewing.
Students in Walker Valley’s STEM Academy packed into the school auditorium for the presentation, which was followed with more questions from curious students than time allowed.
“We planned this because we knew we wanted to teach our students about the eclipse,” said Assistant Principal Chris Green. “We were really fortunate to get someone with the expertise he has.”
Genest, who now lives in the Niota area, spent the bulk of his career working in Mission Control out of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
For 16 years, he was manager of electrical power system operations for the International Space Station through the United Space Alliance. For 10 years before that, he was manager of space shuttle electrical/environmental systems through Rockwell Space Operations Co.
He said he always had a fascination with space as a boy, playing with toy rockets while watching historic events like the first manned space flight to the moon.
Genest would tell everyone when he was young that he wanted to be an astronaut, and he came closer to the goal than most people do. The key to his success, he said, was his determination to follow his passion.
“I urge you to find something you absolutely love, and just go after it with everything you have,” said Genest.
He then turned his attention to the subject on most of the students’ minds — Monday’s total solar eclipse.
Solar eclipses have been observed throughout history, but they have not always been understood. He outlined several examples of eclipses being the subject of speculation and superstition throughout history.
Genest pointed out the students are lucky to be living in a time when there is a wealth of reliable information about eclipses.
A solar eclipse, which involves the moon passing between Earth and the sun, occurs once every 18 months or so somewhere around the globe. However, things do not always line up in such a way that a solar eclipse occurs during the daytime. Genest said the recent hype is due to where and when the upcoming eclipse will be visible.
For the first time in almost a century, a path of totality falls across the entire United States. The “band” of a solar eclipse’s totality is just about 70 miles wide, Genest said. This makes Monday’s eclipse a truly rare event for specific geographical areas, including Southeast Tennessee.
“If you’re not in the 70-mile path of totality, you’re not going to see a total eclipse of the sun,” Genest said. “Not only does this special alignment have to happen, you have to be on the exact point where that band is moving across the Earth.”
“If it were 12 hours earlier or 12 hours later, it could be Southeast Asia having the eclipse.”
The last time Tennessee saw a total solar eclipse was about 148 years ago, Genest said. It has also been roughly 38 years since an eclipse was visible anywhere in the continental United States and nearly 100 years since the last truly widespread viewing opportunity.
While many people will want to go outside to watch the historic solar eclipse, he urged the students to be extremely careful if they choose to do so. Though there will be a very brief period of totality, or darkness, around 2:30 p.m. locally, it is still dangerous to look at the sun immediately before and after that brief time.
“You can damage your retinas permanently with even very short exposure to [direct viewing of] sunlight,” said Genest.
One cannot watch the eclipse with the naked eye, with regular sunglasses or through devices like telescopes, binoculars or camera lenses if they are not properly equipped with solar filters. He repeatedly stressed the only way to safety watch the phases of the eclipse without special equipment before and after the period of totality is with special eclipse viewing glasses.
The solar eclipse glasses most often come in cardboard form, and they have special lenses designed to block out bright sunlight. NASA recommends using viewing glasses which list the manufacturer on them and say they conform to the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard. They should be used whenever “even a tiny sliver” of the sun around the moon is visible, Genest said.
Genest also encouraged the students and their teachers to check out a website NASA has created for the eclipse — https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/. It includes a wealth of information about the event and how to safely watch it.
Students in all Cleveland and Bradley County schools, Walker Valley included, were expected to be sent home with complimentary eclipse viewing glasses today. Several area school systems, including the ones in Cleveland, Bradley County and Polk County, have chosen to cancel school Monday, in light of the eclipse.
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