Nothing can compare with being right in the track of totality for a few precious minutes, even if you have to travel thousands of miles to be there. But what if you're stuck in the States? Will Americans be totally in the dark when the moon's shadow sweeps over Earth early Wednesday?
Never fear: Even though Wednesday's total solar eclipse won't come anywhere near North America, you can still see a small-screen version of the spectacle on your computer monitor, courtesy of the Internet and a fearless band of Webcasters.
There are even a couple of consolations for computer-based eclipse watchers: You might be able to get five or six glimpses of the blacked-out sun, depending on how many Webcams you can click onto in the course of the morning. And you won't have to worry about protecting your eyes, either.
In the real world, Wednesday's eclipse will be visible only along a narrow track running through South America, the Atlantic Ocean, Africa and Asia. A partial eclipse can be seen from wider swaths of those continents, and Europe as well, as laid out in our guide to eclipse viewing. Viewing times for totality can vary from 3:35 to 6:43 a.m. ET, depending on whether you're in Brazil or Mongolia.
But in cyberspace, the main event starts at 5 a.m. ET, when NASA and the San Francisco-based Exploratorium start their satellite broadcast from a Roman-era amphitheater in the Turkish city of Side (pronounced "See-day"). That show will be seen in more than 90 museums, planetariums and other viewing sites around the world, and will be streamed via MSNBC.com's News Video page as well as through NASA TV, the Exploratorium and other outlets.
This could even rank as the first real-world, real-time eclipse witnessed in a virtual world.
"It turns out that the Exploratorium is going to stream the real total solar eclipse into the virtual world of Second Life. A Web developer actually created a 2nd-century Roman theater similar to where we're going to be in Side, with a virtual projection screen," Exploratorium spokeswoman Leslie Patterson told MSNBC.com. (Second Lifers can experience the event at three virtual locations: Fame, NMC Campus or Lukanida.)
In the virtual world as well as plain old cyberspace, the Exploratorium/NASA show will feature reports from Libya by NASA's Fred Espenak, arguably the world's foremost eclipse guru, and from Ghana by physicist Kennedy Reed of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The climax comes at 5:55 a.m. ET, when Side is due to be plunged into darkness for a delicious four minutes.
But the amphitheater show isn't the only game in town. Just down the street in Side, an educational team from Florida and North Carolina will be streaming their own eclipse views via EclipseLive.com.
This is the eighth eclipse for the EclipseLive.com teachers, and during their last outing, the Web traffic was so overwhelming that the computer links basically broke down, said John Berryman, a physics professor at Palm Beach Community College in Florida who is one of the effort's organizers.
"I've hit my limit at 1.8 million users," Berryman told MSNBC.com. "This time I'm going to go for 10 million."
Berryman had a few words of advice for eclipse-chasing Web users: "Get on early, and if you can't see anything, dump the cache and try to reload the page — because a lot of the viewers might have older machines that don't dump the cache the way they're supposed to."
You'll need the video viewing software required by whatever Web site you're looking at, whether that's the Windows Media Player, QuickTime, RealPlayer or VideoLAN — so get your downloads early. You'll need some patience, because it's a given that at least some of the Webcams won't be working as early or as smoothly as the organizers hope. And you'll also need to know exactly when to look where — so here's a quick rundown of Web sites and broadcast times, all expressed in Eastern Time:
3:30 a.m. ET: The eclipse shadow touches down in Brazil for just a minute of totality, from 3:35 to 3:36 a.m. Prospects for Webcasting are unclear, but you can check EclipseTotal as well as Manual Digital. Both sites are in Portuguese.
3:30 a.m. ET: The University of Cape Coast in Ghana begins its eclipse coverage, leading up to totality from 4:07 to 4:11 a.m. The Webcast will be simulcast via U.S.-based servers at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
4 a.m. ET: Japanese eclipse-watchers begin a Webcast on Live-Eclipse.org that will focus on the Wau Namus caldera in Libya at 5:13 a.m., Sallum in Egypt at 5:38 a.m. and Antalya in Turkey at 5:53 a.m. The Webcast ends at 6:30 a.m.
4:20 a.m. ET: The University of Barcelona starts its Webcast from Sallum, Egypt, climaxing at 5:38 a.m. with four minutes of totality from Sallum, Egypt. The Webcast also will include coverage of the partial eclipse as seen from Barcelona, Spain.
4:30ish a.m. ET: Olivier Staiger (a.k.a. Klipsi) should be reporting in from Sallum, with 5:38 as the peak time. "Hope to do a live webcast," he reports in a Web posting, "but maybe not successful, will depend on weather, logistics, weather, technical details, weather, GPRS connection, weather, server bandwidth and the weather, etc. etc. etc."
4:30-5 a.m. ET: The EclipseLive team members, including professors from Appalachian State University and Palm Beach Community College, begin their broadcast from the shores of the Mediterranean at Side, Turkey, during this time frame. Totality begins at 5:55 a.m. Later in the day, the teachers will be conducting online closed-circuit lessons for kids at Florida and North Carolina schools.
4:30 a.m.: The Exploratorium/NASA team starts up a video feed from four different telescopes, without audio. The telescope feed ends at 7:30 a.m. ET as the eclipse gives way to full sun.
4:37 a.m. ET: The University of North Dakota starts up its Webcast from Antalya in Turkey, with four minutes of totality beginning at 5:53 a.m. The North Dakota team is also offering a chatroom and audio conversations, but make sure you download the software well in advance.
5 a.m.-6:15 a.m.: The big Exploratorium/NASA show gets under way at Side, with Exploratorium senior scientist Paul Doherty and NASA’s Isabel Hawkins as hosts. Totality comes at 5:55 a.m., and the show winds up at 6:15 a.m.
While you're waiting for the real-time views, you can check out a couple of Web-based animations that show you what to expect. SpaceWeather.com offers an animated map from Larry Koehn, showing what the sun will look like at various times in various places, as well as a simulation of what the international space station will see (WMV file).
Astronomer Andrew Sinclair has put together an excellent series of eclipse animations, including a classic that graphically shows why so many people will see a partial eclipse and so few will see a total eclipse — unless, of course, you count the Internet.