America stands still to marvel at solar eclipse

Millions of Americans gazed in wonder through telescopes, cameras and protective glasses as the moon blotted out the sun in the first full-blown solar eclipse to sweep the US from coast to coast in nearly a century.

A near total eclipse is seen from South Mike Sedar Park on August 21, 2017 in Casper, Wyoming. . (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“It’s really, really, really, really awesome,” said nine-year-old Cami Smith as she watched the fully eclipsed sun from a lane near her grandfather’s home in Oregon.

The temperature dropped and birds went quiet as the line of darkness raced across the continent.

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In Boise, Idaho, people clapped and whooped, and the street lights came on briefly in the middle of the day.

It promised to be the most observed and photographed eclipse in history, with many Americans staking out prime viewing spots and settling onto blankets and garden chairs to watch, especially along the path of totality - the line of deep shadow created when the sun is completely obscured except for the thin ring of light known as the corona.

The shadow - a corridor just 60 to 70 miles wide - came ashore in Oregon and then began travelling diagonally across the heartland to South Carolina, with darkness lasting only around two to three minutes in any one spot.

The rest of North America was treated to a partial eclipse, as were Central American and the top of South America.

“The show has just begun, people! What a gorgeous day! Isn’t this great, people?” Jim Todd, a director at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, told a crowd of thousands in Salem, Oregon, as the moon took an ever-bigger bite out of the sun.

The sun peeks through the clouds as people wearing solar glasses watch the eclipse in Falls City, Neb., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

With 200 million people within a day’s drive from the path of totality, towns and parks saw big crowds. Clear skies beckoned along most of the route, to the relief of those who feared cloud cover would spoil the once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Nasa reported 4.4 million people were watching its TV coverage midway through the eclipse, the biggest livestream event in the space agency’s history.

“It’s like nothing else you will ever see or ever do,” said veteran eclipse-watcher Mike O’Leary of San Diego, who set up his camera along with hundreds of other amateur astronomers gathered in Casper, Wyoming.

“It can be religious. It makes you feel insignificant, like you’re just a speck in the whole scheme of things.”

The diamond ring effect is visible as the moon passes in front of the sun during a total solar eclipse at Big Summit Prairie ranch in Oregon's Ochoco National Forest near the city of Mitchell on August 21, 2017. Picture: Getty Images

Astronomers were giddy with excitement. A solar eclipse is considered one of the grandest of cosmic spectacles.

Nasa solar physicist Alex Young said the last time people had a connection like this to the heavens was during man’s first flight to the moon, on Apollo 8 in 1968.

The first, famous Earthrise photo came from that mission and, like this eclipse, showed us “we are part of something bigger”.

With a half hour to go before totality, Nasa’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, enjoyed the moon’s “first bites out of the sun” from a plane flying over the Oregon coast and declared it “just an incredible view”.

President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron watch the solar eclipse. (AP Andrew Harnik)

“I’m about to fight this man for a window seat,” Mr Lightfoot said, referring to a fellow Nasa official.

The Earth, moon and sun line up perfectly every one to three years, briefly turning day into night for a sliver of the planet. But these sights normally are in no man’s land, like the vast Pacific or Earth’s poles.

The moon has not thrown this much shade at the US since 1918, during the country’s last coast-to-coast total eclipse.

In fact, the US mainland has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1979 - and even then, only five states in the north-west experienced total darkness.

Scientists said the total eclipse would cast a shadow that would race 2,600 miles through 14 states, entering near Lincoln City, Oregon, and exiting near Charleston, South Carolina.

Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois was in line to see the longest stretch of darkness: two minutes and 44 seconds.

In this multiple exposure photograph, the phases of a partial solar eclipse are seen over the Gateway Arch on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The next total solar eclipse in the US will be in 2024. The next coast-to-coast one will not be until 2045.

The sun peeks through the clouds as people wearing solar glasses watch the eclipse in Falls City, Neb., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
The diamond ring effect is visible as the moon passes in front of the sun during a total solar eclipse at Big Summit Prairie ranch in Oregon's Ochoco National Forest near the city of Mitchell on August 21, 2017. Picture: Getty Images
President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron watch the solar eclipse. (AP Andrew Harnik)
In this multiple exposure photograph, the phases of a partial solar eclipse are seen over the Gateway Arch on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)