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The Mental Floss Field Guide to Viewing the Solar Eclipse

A total solar eclipse will cross the United States on August 21, 2017, and if you want to catch it, you'll probably want to start making preparations now. To see the total eclipse (which you really want to do!), you will need to travel to the path of totality. Mental Floss spoke to Mitzi Adams, a heliophysicist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, about everything you need to know to see the Sun disappear, photograph the process, why it's important to scientists, and how cultures around the world have interpreted the celestial phenomenon.

WHAT AM I LOOKING FOR DURING THE ECLIPSE?

The total solar eclipse is made up of phases. First, there's first contact, when the Sun and Moon first "touch." This leads into the partial phase, when it looks like someone is taking increasingly large bites from the Sun. Next is the actual eclipse itself, when the Sun is totally covered by the Moon. It lasts a very brief time, from a few seconds to just over two minutes, depending on where along the path you view it. The Sun passes through partial phases again as the Moon continues on its way. During the total phase, remove your eclipse eyewear and behold the corona of the Sun, wispy, revenant limbs of light reaching from a black hole in the sky. Stars and planets will be visible as day has turned to an eerie, ethereal night.

Down on the Earth's surface, says Adams, you'll notice that nature has no idea what's going on. "During the total phase when the light from the Sun's photosphere is completely blocked, some animals react," she tells Mental Floss. "The cows may start walking toward the barn. Horses may do the same. Crickets start chirping. You'll hear frogs. Birds will go to roost. Chickens will react the same way they do at sunset. All animals, including the human ones, react to eclipses in some way. The human reaction is typically, 'Wow! Look at that!'"

WHAT TOOLS CAN I USE TO VIEW AN ECLIPSE (WITHOUT GOING BLIND)?

During the partial phase of a total eclipse, you need to wear special eclipse glasses that protect your eyes from the Sun. This isn't some overly cautious government recommendation that only the squares follow. If you don't wear the glasses, you won't be able to see anything that's happening because you are staring at the Sun. Eclipse glasses can be found online, at public libraries and museums, and, along the path of totality, science advocacy and public education initiatives should have glasses freely available in large quantities. By the time the eclipse gets here, if you can't find glasses, it's because you didn't want to find them.

If you want to up your game, though, the Bill Nye Solar Eclipse Glasses might soon be the It-item of Milan's runways. Described as featuring a "stylish frame that is fashionable for both men and women" (complete with a silhouette of Nye's face on one of the arms), these glasses are "built to last"—and they would have to be. It will be seven years before the next total solar eclipse over North America.

Eclipse glasses will not magnify the eclipse. You can, however, use a telescope or pair of binoculars if you want to get a closer look. You really need to know what you're doing, though, and if this is your first eclipse, ask yourself if it is worth fiddling with knobs during what might be a once-in-a-lifetime event. If you're going to use a telescope, though, here's some advice from the heliophysicist:

"The safest way is to have a special filter that will fit over the front of the telescope," says Adams. "The telescope could be a refractor or a reflector. Binoculars would also work, though you want either two filters, or one filter while you block the light over one side of the binocular pair. Any of these filters will fit over the front."

The filters will be made of mylar or glass, she says, and warns that they must be specifically certified as safe for viewing the Sun. "You do not want to use any kind of filter that will screw into an eyepiece because they will crack, and it doesn't take very long—just a couple of seconds—to build up the heat to crack the filter."

If you want to view the Sun up close during the partial phase of the eclipse, be on the lookout for sunspots, the darker areas seen on the surface of the Sun. The current phase of the Sunspot cycles suggests that there won't be any Sunspots large enough to see with the naked eye. With a telescope, though, you might have better luck.

WHEN NASA LOOKS AT THE SUN, WHAT ARE THEY LOOKING FOR?

"We want to learn as much about Sun as possible," says Adams. "We're trying to study from the core of Sun all the way out to the corona, which is the outer layer of the Sun's atmosphere. The eclipse will enable us to study the inner corona. We can actually build pictures of events on Sun from the photosphere, through the chromosphere, and into the corona."

Scientists will combine the visible light images that they get from the eclipse with images from sources such as NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in orbit around the Earth. The observatory views the Sun in multiple wavelengths—mostly extreme ultraviolet—continuously, but it is unable to get the inner corona in visible light. "We can't really study the full spectrum unless we're using images from a solar eclipse," says Adams.

HOW DO I PHOTOGRAPH THE ECLIPSE?

Nikon has provided a comprehensive guide to photographing the Sun both conventionally, on a tripod, and with a special telescope mount. Eclipse2017 also has a useful set of pointers for how to preserve the moment. But the big thing to remember is, DO NOT USE A FLASH—not for reasons related to photography (though seriously, do you think your Galaxy S6 flash is strong enough illuminate the entire sky?) but because part of the wonder of the event is the day turning to night! Light pollution is already a problem for skywatching. Don't turn the eclipse into a light toxic waste dump. (Do not use a flashlight, either.) The best photography advice might be to keep your camera at home and enjoy the total eclipse with your eyes—not through a glass screen.

CAN I HELP DO SCIENCE?

Yes, and the American Astronomical Society has you covered. There's Citizen CATE, in which amateur astronomers across the country will use identical cameras and telescope equipment to take pictures of the Sun's inner corona; the Do-It-Yourself Relativity Test, in which, during the eclipse, you can "measure the gravitational deflection of starlight and prove for yourself that Einstein really was right" with no special equipment; the Eclipse Megamovie Project, which will use images and footage taken of the eclipse by citizen scientists across the country, and, from that, stitch together a high-definition video of the eclipse; and there are many, many others.

WILL TRAVEL BE A PROBLEM?

Yep! Finding a hotel room will be a problem. Entrepreneurial members of Airbnb who live along the path of totality are renting out square footage in their yards for people to set up tents, and they're charging hundreds of dollars for the favor. Your best bet for finding a reasonably priced room is Nashville, which is the largest city on the path and a major tourist destination year-round. Traffic will be a problem, though nobody knows how bad, exactly, because it's been 38 years since an eclipse path of totality passed over the continental United States, and nearly 100 since the last coast-to-coast eclipse. What you need to know is that 200 million people live within a day's drive (about 500 miles) of the path. It doesn't take a civil engineer to imagine how that might go. Parking will be a problem. Make sure your gas tank is full, you have food and water in the car, and for the love of all that is good and holy, insist that the kids try to use the bathroom before you get on the highway. It might be a very long, very slow drive even for short distances.

I HAVE KIDS—WHAT DO I DO WITH THEM?

Bring them! Most of the communities along the path of totality are pulling out all the stops. While you wait for the (very brief) show, there will be plenty of entertainment, and NASA will have beachhead presence across the country with science demonstrations for kids and adults alike. Just make sure everyone has their own pair of eclipse glasses.

THE ECLIPSE WILL NOT CHANGE THE SUN'S RAYS AND GIVE YOU CANCER.

There are a lot of mistaken beliefs about eclipses that should be put to rest. "One large misconception is that somehow going outside during the eclipse is dangerous—that there are somehow 'eclipse rays' that happen, and that the Sun is more dangerous during an eclipse," says Adams. "That's just not true. The light from the Sun is exactly the same from an eclipse as when it's not eclipsed."

Likewise, staring at an eclipse when it is at totality will not make you go blind. Indeed, during totality, that's when you take off your eclipse glasses and specifically stare at the Moon-concealed Sun.

WHAT GROUPS ARE CELEBRATING THE EVENT?

The entire U.S. will see at least 70 percent coverage of the Sun, which is pretty good when compared with the 0 percent coverage we get every day. As such, the whole country will evolve into one massive solar celebration, with literally thousands of parties and viewing events being held at schools, libraries, museums, parks, amateur astronomy groups, university astronomy departments—you name it, they're doing it. There are multi-day music festivals in Oregon and Illinois, the latter of which is called Moonstock, with Ozzy Osbourne headlining.

Even if you live outside the path of totality, NASA will help you host an eclipse party. They've even built an international map of experts that you can reach out to for party entertainment. (Ozzy Osbourne will not have useful astronomy advice, I can assure you. But Brian May, on the other hand … )

WHERE WILL HAVE THE BEST WEATHER FOR THE ECLIPSE?

The entire path of totality has a reasonable chance of good weather. For the very best weather in the country on eclipse day, Great American Eclipse says that Oregon is the place to be. "While the Oregon coast is at risk of marine clouds," they report, "the interior of this state actually enjoys the nation's best weather prospects." Snake River Valley, Idaho, and western Nebraska are also recommended for their extensive network of highways and farm roads. If clouds roll in, you can easily relocate to some place more favorable.

HOW HAVE CULTURES INTERPRETED ECLIPSES OVER THE CENTURIES?

Our friends at the Lunar and Planetary Institute have commissioned an extraordinary collection of multicultural eclipse folktales, performed by professional storytellers Cassandra Wye and Fran Stallings. The stories reveal how people around the world going back centuries have explained and interpreted eclipses, from the Batammaliba people of Africa, whose eclipse origin story sees the Moon taking revenge on the Sun, to the Anishabe people of North America, for whom the Sun was briefly imprisoned.

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Look Up! Residents of Maine and Michigan Might Catch a Glimpse of the Northern Lights Tonight
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The aurora borealis, a celestial show usually reserved for spectators near the arctic circle, could potentially appear over parts of the continental U.S. on the night of February 15. As Newsweek reports, a solar storm is on track to illuminate the skies above Maine and Michigan.

The Northern Lights (and the Southern Lights) are caused by electrons from the sun colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar particles transfer some of their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules on contact, and as these excited molecules settle back to their normal states they release light particles. The results are glowing waves of blue, green, purple, and pink light creating a spectacle for viewers on Earth.

The more solar particles pelt the atmosphere, the more vivid these lights become. Following a moderate solar flare that burst from the sun on Monday, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecast a solar light show for tonight. While the Northern Lights are most visible from higher latitudes where the planet’s magnetic field is strongest, northern states are occasionally treated to a view. This is because the magnetic North Pole is closer to the U.S. than the geographic North Pole.

This Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be one of those occasions. To catch a glimpse of the phenomena from your backyard, wait for the sun to go down and look toward the sky. People living in places with little cloud cover and light pollution will have the best chance of spotting it.

[h/t Newsweek]

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10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.

1. THREE HAUMEAS COULD FIT SIDE BY SIDE IN EARTH.

Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.

2. HAUMEA'S DISCOVERY WAS CONTROVERSIAL.

There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.

3. IT'S NAMED FOR A HAWAIIAN GODDESS.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.

4. HAUMEA HAS RINGS—AND THAT'S STRANGE.

Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.

5. HAUMEA'S SURFACE IS EXTREMELY BRIGHT.

In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.

6. HAUMEA HAS ONE OF THE SHORTEST DAYS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.

If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.

7. HAUMEA'S HIGH SPEED SQUISHES IT INTO A SHAPE LIKE A RUGBY BALL.

haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.

8. HIGH-SPEED COLLISIONS MAY EXPLAIN HAUMEA'S TWO MOONS.

Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."

9. ONE MOON HAS WATER ICE—JUST LIKE HAUMEA.

Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.

10. TRYING TO SEE HAUMEA FROM EARTH IS LIKE TRYING TO LOOK AT A COIN MORE THAN 100 MILES AWAY.

It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

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