Category: Space


Shame on me for neglecting this blog for six years. (Ouch.) Like, really.

But there has been, and is currently, so much incredible science to write about!

For instance, this August there will be for the first time in decades, a total solar eclipse that will span the entire contiguous United States.  This means the moon will pass between the sun and the earth, and the moon will cast its shadow in a diagonal path cutting right across the entire country, from Oregon to South Carolina. They’re calling it the Great American Eclipse, and while it’s not on too many people’s minds yet, it will be the place to be on August 21, 2017.

I have been interested in eclipses since my days at the AMNH, and have often followed Fred Espenak (Mr. Eclipse)’s accounts, wishing wistfully that I had a sponsor or enough money to travel to exotic locales where eclipses took place. Madagascar, Alaska, the Mediterranean, Indonesia, Faroe Islands, oceanic cruises. I honestly thought that total solar eclipses were something that just didn’t happen in this part of the globe because of some mathematical or scientific reason I didn’t understand. (Of course eclipses are not surprises, we know when and where they will occur, and I could have figured this out had I just done a bit of research far enough ahead.)

I got excited about the partial solar eclipse on Christmas Day 2000, visible with special eclipse glasses. I bought them for the family and got everyone to gather around at the window at the proper time to take a look. Family members took a break from cooking and presents to say, “Wow. Huh. That’s interesting. What else happens? Will the sky go dark?” I explained that no, that was as impressive as it would get, and the sky would not darken further since it was not a total solar eclipse, but a partial. They were not too impressed overall, or with how slowly it happened, and quickly returned to other activities. (I am known to be the resident nerd in the family.)

I also got excited for some partial and total lunar eclipses in the past couple of decades. These, unlike solar eclipses, are safe to watch with the naked eye, just as the moon is safe to look at unlike the sun. A friend and I sat outside from 11pm-2am on a New York City street curb on a warm summer evening, watching the moon gradually disappear and finally turn red. That was where I learned the lesson that eclipses don’t happen like the gifs you see of them. They happen slowly–so slowly you almost can’t perceive the change. It has been likened to watching a flower open.

Fast forward to 2017. There is a site set up for this year’s event called the Great American Eclipse, which has a lot of incredible information on it, including maps, context, and history. (Disclaimer: I don’t own this site nor know the owners, and I make no money off linking to it; I simply have bought a couple of their products and used it enough to know it’s good information. National Eclipse is also a good resource, and EclipseWise, and of course, NASA.) It’s been enough to get me excited about eclipses again. In fact, the eclipse of 2017 is the first total solar eclipse to visit only the U.S.A. since 1776! The last total solar eclipse within the contiguous 48 United States was on February 26, 1979, which I can’t remember but at least one of my older siblings does. (My siblings are older than me – 11, 13, and 15 years older.) So you can see why I thought they simply didn’t occur here. But in buying the book from that website, I have learned that the reason there hasn’t been an eclipse in the U.S. recently is that there was a drought, so to speak, over the last few decades that coincided with my lifetime thus far, and a number of eclipses are now coming to the U.S. in the next few decades that will give us more than once chance to view.

That said, I love the variety of locales this one gives us to choose from — from Oregon to South Carolina — and I am still (yes, much too late) trying to decide whether to travel to view it and where. I am chasing diamonds – that diamond ring effect and the glowing corona of totality. But I can’t seem to get anyone on board with me since it’s such a short period of time and so chancy. I have learned that weather is critical–obviously if there are clouds, you will miss it. So your best chance is out west. I’ve also learned you want to ideally be mobile–have a vehicle–to chase it a bit, and move away from local clouds. Totality only lasts about 2 minutes, so it’s critical to have not even a passing cloud in those two minutes! (I admit it’s partly the challenge of this that excites me.)

Why are total solar eclipses so special?

Somewhere along the way, I know I read or saw somewhere on a documentary, that they are actually quite a rare phenomenon, not just on Earth but at all–in the universe. The sun is four hundred times larger than the moon but also four hundred times more distant, on average, from Earth. It is mathematical chance that our moon is exactly the right diameter compared to the sun’s diameter at our exact distance from the sun. Meaning there is only a slight probability that you would have those two conditions be just right so as to create the effect of a total solar eclipse. If our moon was just a bit bigger or smaller, or if our earth was just a bit closer or farther away from the sun, the effect would be totally different. We happen to be at just the right spot and our moon at just the right size to make it happen. And this is one of those things where I think, yes that could just be chance, but I like to think there’s a design there. (I’ll do other entries that describe how we probably wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for our Moon, or Jupiter, or of course the Sun, existing, and how the scientist in me argues with the Catholic in me and how the two aren’t necessarily at odds.) Long after we’re gone, they will also occur with less frequency as the moon will eventually slip from the earth’s orbit, and the sun will expand. So not only is this a rare phenomenon, but temporary.  I can’t find my sources for this rarity, but if anyone can point me to it, please do.

What happens during a total solar eclipse?

This is what I want to experience.

Apparently it gets cooler. The temperature can drop 10-15 degrees. You can “feel” the moon’s shadow. The horizon in every direction looks like sunset, with a rainbow of colors. The sky darkens, like nighttime during the day. You can see stars during the day. It gets quiet. Animals and birds go quiet and even roost for the “night.” Flowers will close, and reopen. All this in addition to the celestial specacle of diamond ring effect, Bailey’s beads, and totality with the sun’s corona. No wonder the ancients thought it was an omen. No wonder they thought the world was ending.

WindRiverEclipse.org has some incredible, inspiring descriptions. Had I really planned this out properly, and had enough time that the Wyoming areas were not sold out or overpriced, I might have done AstroCon in Casper, Wyoming the week before, and then stayed at the Wind River Hotel & Casino on the Arapaho Indian Reservation for Eclipse weekend. Which, weirdly is smack in the middle of the path of totality–all four corners of the reservation. They haven’t had rain on August 21 in decades. I didn’t have the foresight (or more accurately, I did, but was lazy and disorganized), but they have one of the more nicely done eclipse tourism websites out there.

It looks like I will end up in Nebraska, for a variety of reasons: easy, more affordable air travel from NYC; hotel availability and prices still look good; lesser likelihood of rain than points east; and wide open vistas and low light pollution (also on my bucket list is to see the Milky Way, which living in NYC my entire live, I have never seen). Route 80 spans the state from east to west, and most of it is in the path of totality, so there’s good mobility.  I will likely end up somewhere between Kansas City and Omaha. I’ve tried to find a travel companion for this one, but so far no luck among family or friends.

I don’t know why I feel compelled. In addition to the above, I think part of it is this: We as a human race, at least in Western technologically-advanced societies, have completely lost connection to nature and space. I think it’s deep in our DNA to be connected to the rhythms and cycles and events of nature and the cosmos. And we have completely lost that. We don’t need the sun to tell us when to rise and sleep. We don’t need stars for navigation or the sun and moon to tell time. These amazing events happen all around us and we don’t take the time to notice or look. Even if we know they’re going to happen, we rarely value them. They are fascinating, wondrous, and often beautiful.

I have also become chronically ill, and for the past 3.5 years my mobility and energy were greatly reduced. I have recently found enough relief that I want to start doing things I couldn’t do during that period, because I don’t know how long I have until my mobility might be impaired again. I’ve learned life is short and you need to take advantage of opportunities and beauty when you can.

There are total solar eclipses on the globe about every 2 years, if you have unlimited funds to travel. One only gets about 8 chances in a lifetime to view one nearby (say, on a continent) and about half of those are clouded out.

This will be my first one, maybe my only one, and I may screw it up. But if so, I can apply my lessons learned to the next time.

Our next chance is in 2024.

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Mysterious Metallic Objects

It’s December 22, 2011, just past the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere… and T-minus 364 days to the Mayan apocalypse if you believe in that sort of thing. I don’t, but I do find it fun to follow (barring any mass hysteria as the day approaches, of course). There are of course some interesting coincidences as the day draws nearer: weird global weather, worldwide economic crisis and social unrest, and these small metallic objects that have been falling to Earth from space for the last 20 years.

What? You don’t know about them?

I didn’t either until today. Popular Science has an article, Mysterious Metallic Space Ball Falls to Earth in Africa, Baffling Authorities (with some pretty funny comments) based on one from PhysOrg. It’s probably space junk, but what interested me was that it’s not the first. “Several such balls have dropped in southern Africa, Australia and Latin America in the past twenty years, authorities found in an Internet search.” Universe Today has pictures of others. If NASA and the ESA don’t know what it is, then maybe military space junk.

(Or aliens.)

Discovery identifies the objects as probably COPVs, used to store gases under pressure in a space environment. Space junk is not as much fun as possible alien pods, but becoming more and more of a serious issue in proportion to our ever-expanding need for communications and technology.

Humans are messy creatures. But maybe next December 21 will take care of that. 😉