Mark Humphrey  /  AP
A road sign for Hopkinsville, Ky., rises beneath the afternoon sun. When a total solar eclipse darkens the skies over parts of the United States on Aug. 21, 2017, the afternoon event will last longer in a rural stretch near Hopkinsville than in any other place on the planet.
updated 9/1/2012 5:36:58 PM ET 2012-09-01T21:36:58

This southwestern Kentucky town has hit the astronomical jackpot.

When a total eclipse of the sun darkens skies on Aug. 21, 2017, the show will last longer in a stretch of bucolic hill country near Hopkinsville than any place on the planet. It will last two minutes and 40 seconds, not much longer than the Kentucky Derby.

But already this town of 32,000 near the Tennessee border is making preparations to cash in on the fortuitous celestial alignment. And like the Derby, run three hours away in Louisville, the eclipse itself will be a blip in time compared to the buildup.

"We will be the Mecca of the solar eclipse because we are the dead center," said Cheryl Cook, executive director of the Hopkinsville-Christian County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A few miles northwest of town, the countryside of crops, modest farmhouses and quaint churches is expected to draw bands of scientists and eclipse chasers. They'll be armed with telescopes and cameras to capture the first total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. mainland since 1979.

"If people want to make the absolute most of it, and get every single last millisecond of looking, that's where you want to be," said Dean Regas, an astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory.

Reservations for 2017
Already, local motels are hearing from people wanting to witness the spectacle.

At the Hampton Inn & Suites, eclipse chasing groups from Germany and Japan have reserved more than two dozen rooms, said Jeff Smith, the inn's general manager.

Smith said it's a sign of the frenzy to come.

"It will be the largest event that this community has ever seen," he said.

Local officials started a Facebook page promoting the event. And they coined a slogan, promoting the eclipse as "the most exciting two minutes and 40 seconds in astronomy" — playing off the Derby's claim as the most exiting two minutes in sports.

Mike Mathis, co-owner of the Wood Shed Bar-B-Q & Restaurant, hopes to serve up slabs of barbecue ribs and piles of pork and mutton to hordes of visitors. The eatery is a few miles from the best eclipse-viewing spot.

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Mathis vowed he won't jack up his food prices when the big event arrives, and urged fellow merchants to resist the temptation.

"Don't try to gouge the folks so we can draw 'em in," he said.

Vince Dixon, who runs an ATV repair shop nearby, describes the area as a "secluded little bubble," but predicted area residents will be welcoming. It's given him even more incentive to create a campground out of an empty field on his property.

"In my opinion, with the way the economy is, you better welcome them," he said. "You take what you can get now."

How the eclipse works
A solar eclipse happens when the moon lines up between the sun and the Earth, casting a lunar shadow on the Earth's surface and obscuring the solar disk. During a partial solar eclipse, only part of the sun is blotted out.

Total solar eclipses draw anywhere from hundreds to thousands of scientists, tourists and curious observers to areas with good views. There will be a handful of such spectacles around the world before August 2017, but none with good vantage points in the U.S. mainland.

"I've only seen one total eclipse in my life, and it is the most incredible experience you'll ever see," Regas said. "On the top 10 list of astronomical events, this is No. 1, and No. 2 is way down the list. It's not even close.

"The way the sky just turns this purplish color, the temperature drops very quickly, the stars pop out in the middle of the daytime. It's eerie. You get an idea of how scary it might have been for the ancients when this came out of the blue."

The proximity of the prime viewing spot to Hopkinsville was reported earlier by the Kentucky New Era newspaper.

Narrow swath
The path of the total eclipse will cut a narrow swath across the country. It will start in Oregon and take a path through parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, slivers of Georgia and North Carolina and then into South Carolina, Regas said.

Along the path in Kentucky and Tennessee, the sky will darken in such places as Paducah, Ky., and Clarksville and Nashville in Tennessee, he said. In Nashville, the total eclipse will last one minute and 47 seconds, he said.

In most other parts of the country, a partial solar eclipse will be visible, he said.

Scientists urge people to wear protective glasses when viewing a solar eclipse.

Bill Kramer, who runs a website geared toward eclipse chasers, said the crowds could be "more akin to a county fair than a gathering of scientists and astronomers."

"A solar eclipse is a very public event and does not require a tremendous amount of technical support — except to be at the right place at the right time," Kramer said in an email.

Hopkinsville officials are talking about setting aside viewing areas, Cook said. Parks and a football field are among the possibilities. Seminars featuring astronomers in the days beforehand are being discussed.

UFO connection
In one ironic twist, the solar eclipse will share the same Aug. 21 date as a popular piece of local folklore — when a family claimed to see a spaceship with aliens land near their home in 1955. The family's claims are kept alive in the Little Green Men festival near the eclipse-viewing spot.

"It kind of gave me the chills when I saw the date," Cook said.

Meanwhile, local county magistrate Mark Cansler, said he wants to be accommodating but hopes that designated viewing areas are created to keep visitors from trampling through yards and farms. He lives and farms in the area.

"I don't think people would want large groups setting up camp in their yards," he said. "If we have crops out there, we wouldn't want people running over them."

Tammy Hale, who lives near what will be the most prime viewing area, was asked if she would charge visitors to park on her property.

"Why?" she quickly replied. Her husband, Tim, added, "Depends on how bad we're hurting for money."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Best eclipse images

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  1. Fun in the '50s

    Two women share a safety filter to watch a solar eclipse on June 30, 1954, from London's Fleet Street. (Evening Standard / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eyes on the sky

    Members of the British Astronomers Association set up their telescopes and cameras in preparation for the August 1999 total solar eclipse. Observers should never look directly at a partial solar eclipse through telescopes or binoculars without protective measures. (Ian Waldie / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Totality in the '20s

    Londoners peer at a solar eclipse through smoked glass on June 29, 1927. Today, experts say the best way to see a partial solar eclipse is by using special filters or an indirect viewing system such as a pinhole camera. The total phase of the eclipse can be seen safely by the naked eye, but if even a bit of the sun's disk is showing, gazing at the eclipse too long could damage the eyes. (H. F. Davis / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ga-ga over glasses

    Children attending the Helston School Eclipse Science Camp in England try out their protective glasses on the day before the total solar eclipse of Aug. 11, 1999. The school organized a project to send science activity packs and safety information to other schools throughout Britain. (Russell Boyce / REUTERS) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Shadow watching

    Chinese viewers watch the sun being blocked by the moon in Gaotai, Gansu province, during a solar eclipse on Aug. 1, 2008. (Aly Song / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Ring of fire

    A series of photographs shows the moon passing between the sun and Earth during the annular solar eclipse of Jan. 26, 2009, as seen from Bandar Lampung in Indonesia. The photographs were taken with a solar filter on the lens. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sun-watching sunbathers

    A couple looks at October 2005's annular eclipse with special glasses on a beach in Gandia in eastern Spain. (Fernando Bustamante / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cloud cover

    The sun is seen during a partial solar eclipse in Chennai (Madras), India, on Oct. 3, 2005. (M. Lakshman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Holy sight

    A multiple-exposure photo captures the moon's movement across the disk of the sun on Aug. 11, 1999, as seen from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. This was the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century. (Ali Kabas / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Solar streams

    The sun's corona is a tenuous outer atmosphere composed of streams of energetic charged particles, but it is seen easily from Earth only during a total solar eclipse. This 1991 image of totality from atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, provides a fleeting glimpse of the corona's intricate structures and streams. (High Altitude Observatory, Ncar) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Eclipses everywhere

    An employee at a department store in Hamburg, Germany, watches an array of televisions during broadcast coverage of the total solar eclipse of August 1999. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Boxed in

    Wendy Shifrin of South Lee, Mass., uses a box fitted with welders' glass to view a partial solar eclipse from New York's Central Park on Dec. 25, 2000. People in the Northeast saw the moon blot out as much as 60 percent of the sun around midday. The next partial Christmas eclipse, according to astronomers, will be in 2307. (Tina Fineberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Red sky at morning

    The new moon covers up part of the sun during an eclipse seen from a fishing spot on the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on June 21, 2001. (Miguel Mendez / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A bitten sun in Bulgaria

    Bulgarian children look at a partial solar eclipse through a telescope in the Black Sea port of Varna on Oct. 3, 2005. (Str / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lord of the ring

    A sequence of three pictures, taken from the Portuguese city of Arguzelo, shows the progress of the annular eclipse on Oct. 3, 2005. In an annular eclipse, a thin ring of the sun's disk remains visible around the dark disk of the moon. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Skywatching shepherd

    Portuguese villager Jose Preto, 78, watches the progress of the October 2005 annular solar eclipse through radiation-blocking glasses while tending a flock of sheep at Rio de Onor. (Paulo Duarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Sliver of sun

    A man looks through a filter at an annular solar eclipse from La Linea in southern Spain on Oct. 3, 2005. In an annular eclipse, the moon moves between the sun and Earth but does not completely cover the solar disk, due to the orbital mechanics involved. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A taste of the sun

    A partial solar eclipse is projected onto at a girl's tongue as she looks into the sky over the Jordanian capital Amman on Oct. 3, 2005. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Do-it-yourself astronomy

    A man looks at the annular eclipse of October 2005 through a homemade cardboard tube with a filter taped over it, outside a planetarium in Pamplona, Spain. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Diamond ring

    An annular solar eclipse produces a "diamond ring" effect on May 30, 1984, as seen from Picayune, Miss. (Roger Ressmeyer / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Flower power

    In Amman, Jordan, the sun is reflected on a flower as the moon partially blocks it, forming a crescent during the solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. (Ali Jarekji / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Desert spectacle

    Libyan youths watch the total solar eclipse in the desert tourist camp in Galo on March 29, 2006, where thousands of astronomers and thrill-seekers gathered to view the sight. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Protecting the flock

    A young Lebanese shepherd carries a goat as he watches a partial solar eclipse in the village of Bqosta, near the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, on March 29. Both the shepherd and the goat are wearing protective eyewear. (Mohammed Zaatari / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. View from space

    Astronauts aboard the international space station snapped this picture from 230 miles above Earth as the shadow of the moon fell on the planet during a total solar eclipse on March 29, 2006. Visible near the shadow are portions of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea and the coast of Turkey. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Watching Safely
    Evening Standard / Getty Images
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