Thousands of suburban astronomy fans will be among the 50,000 people expected to converge on downstate Illinois this summer to witness the rare full solar eclipse.
On Aug. 21, parts of the country will be able to see a 100 percent solar eclipse -- where the moon moves directly in front of the midday sun, blocking it completely for a few minutes and making it dark enough to see stars in the sky at 1:20 p.m.
The full eclipse, dubbed "The Great American Eclipse," will be visible, weather permitting, in a 70-mile-wide band that stretches across the U.S. from Oregon to North Carolina. It includes the southern Illinois cities of Marion, Chester and Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University where many events are centered.
Excited astronomy fans in the suburbs started planning for this trip months ago. The Naperville Astronomical Association already booked a block of 100 hotel rooms in three different locations. The group also rented a park district ballfield outside Carbondale for its own private viewing party, to accommodate its 150 members who plan to go.
Full eclipses happen each year, but they're often in faraway or hard-to-reach places around the world. The last one viewable in the United States was in 1979. So to have one this close to Chicago is very exciting, astronomical association spokesman Eric Claeys said.
"For people that know about it, and appreciate what it is -- which is everyone in our club -- it's a big deal," he said. "I've talked to people who've seen them, and they said it's almost like a life-changing event."
Those who stay in the Chicago area can still see a partial eclipse, of about 90 percent, but it won't be as dark as downstate. Still, the Adler Planetarium will have a viewing party and eclipse-related activities.
Many people will drive to places along the path that offer the most "totality," including Columbia or St. Joseph, Missouri, and areas in and around Carbondale.
Many hotels and campgrounds in southern Illinois sold out months ago, with people coming from as far away as Japan to witness it.
"There have been people waiting, literally, for decades to see this," said Michelle Nichols, master educator at the Adler Planetarium, who is helping plan the events in Carbondale. "If you've got any friends or relatives in southern Illinois, this is the time to start knockin' on their doors."
The eclipse is expected to pump millions of dollars into southern Illinois' local economy. Local tourism bureaus have arranged for a weekend full of activities to persuade people to come down the weekend before the eclipse. Offerings will include a large music festival and arts and crafts fair; an astronomy, science and technology expo; and special offers from local wineries.
The main event will be the Monday, Aug. 21, eclipse viewing party hosted by Southern Illinois University, Chicago's Adler Planetarium and NASA at SIU's Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. Tickets are on sale for $25 at http://eclipse.siu.edu/.
Besides a clear view of the eclipse (they've blocked out the seats that won't face it), there will be hours of related activities in the stadium. The plans are still evolving, but there could be guest speakers like a NASA astronaut and entertainment like SIU's marching band playing songs like "Here Comes the Sun" and "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
On campus, there will be everything from astronomy lectures to wacky student contests. SIU plans to float three high-altitude balloons with video capabilities, and NASA will have a live stream "megacast" of the eclipse that could be watched online by up to a billion people worldwide.
"(The full eclipse) is spectacular to see. It gets a little cooler ... and animals kinda act weird because they think it's nighttime," said Bob Baer, co-chairman of the SIU Eclipse committee who traveled to Indonesia earlier this year to see a full eclipse.
To safely view the eclipse, people should not look directly into the sun. They can make a pinhole viewer using index cards or buy a pair of solar viewing glasses online. Nichols strongly recommends glasses that are certified, made by companies like Rainbow Symphony or American Paper Optics, and cost only a few dollars per pair.
In Carbondale, the eclipse will last about three hours, starting around 11:52 a.m., with 2 minutes and 38 seconds of "totality," or total coverage of the sun. The totality varies depending on where you are. The maximum totality will be about 10 miles south of Carbondale in Makanda.
The only thing that could eclipse the eclipse? Heavy clouds or rain.
"It's not going to rain over the entire path. But if it rains, it rains. You deal with what nature gives you. We'll be in Carbondale no matter what, and it will still get very, very dark," Nichols said.
The good news is that there will be another full solar eclipse in 2024 -- viewable in both Carbondale and Indianapolis. Whether you go in 2017 or 2024, Baer said it'll be worth the drive.
"It's like nothing you've ever seen before," he said.