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.

The Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks This Week: Here's When and Where to See It

iStock.com/sripfoto
iStock.com/sripfoto

Star-gazers are in for a treat this week with the Geminid meteor shower set to light up skies across the globe. According to Space.com, the shower produces consistently stunning light shows this time each year, with meteors that are fast, frequent, and bright depending on where they're viewed. Whether you catch the spectacle every December or you'll be watching it for the first time, there's some important information to know before the 2018 event.

While most meteor showers are the product of our planet passing through the tail of a comet, the Geminid meteors come from something different: A small, rocky asteroid called 3200 Phaethon that leaves a wake of fiery debris like a comet. Its orbit brings it very close to the Sun, and when this happens, bits of rock break off in the heat and trail the object through space. (Some astronomers refer to 3200 Phaethon as a "rock comet.")

When the Earth passes through the tail, the debris burns up in the atmosphere, producing a bright show that's visible from the ground. And because the matter that trails 3200 Phaethon is denser than what you'd find behind a comet, it takes longer to burn up, creating a brighter spark and sometimes breaking up into multiple meteorites. This year viewers can expect to see more than one meteor a minute with up to 100 meteors per hour at the shower's peak.

The shower peaks the night of Thursday, December 13 and early Friday morning on December 14. The best time to watch is when the skies are darkest, usually around 2 a.m. local time. Unlike two years ago, when the Geminids coincided with a supermoon, the Moon will set around midnight on Thursday so viewing conditions will be ideal.

The Geminid meteor shower is visible around the world, though it's most prominent in the northern hemisphere. As is the case with all celestial events, people who live as far away from cities as possible will get the best view, but even people watching from the suburbs could catch as many as 30 meteors an hour.

[h/t Space.com]

Did NASA Ever Consider Women for the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo Programs?

Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images
Russell L. Schweickart, Keystone/Getty Images

C Stuart Hardwick:

Unambiguously, no.

This was not sexism. NASA decided early on, and quite correctly, that early astronauts must all be experienced high-performance jet test pilots. To anyone who understands what the early space program involved, there can be little question that choosing all men was the right call. That's because there were zero women in the country with high-performance test flight experience—which was due to sexism.

You may have heard of the so-called “Mercury 13” or the Women in Space Program, both of which are misleading monikers invented by the press and/or American aviator Jerrie Cobb.

Here’s what happened:

Randy Lovelace’s laboratory tested astronaut candidates to help NASA select the initial seven Mercury astronauts. He later ran Jerrie Cobb through the same Phase I (biomedical) tests (though not through the other tests, as he didn’t have access to equipment owned by the military). Contrary to some reports, Cobb did not test superior to the men overall, but she did test as well overall. And while that should not have been a surprise to anyone, it was in fact a surprise to many.

Lovelace published a paper on the work in which he suggested that women might actually be preferable candidates for space travel since they weigh less on average and consume less oxygen, water, and other consumables, a fact which I exploited in my book, For All Mankind, and I can tell you that on a long duration mission (of several months) the difference really does add up.

This had no effect on Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo, all of which were short little jaunts in which the mass of the astronauts wasn’t terribly critical, and all of which were always going to be flown by high-performance test pilots anyway.

However, it attracted the attention of famed aviation pioneer Jackie Cochran, who agreed to fund further research on the suitability of women for space.

Pioneer American aviator Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Jackie Cochran in the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter plane
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cochran and Cobb recruited several more women, mostly from the ranks of the Ninety-Nines, a women aviator’s professional organization founded by Amelia Earhart. These women also went through the initial biomedical testing, and 13 passed at the same standard as met by the Mercury astronauts.

So far so good. Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations, and Lovelace secured verbal agreement through his contacts to send another group to the Naval School of Aviation Medicine for advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.

However, no one had authorized the use of the military facilities for this purpose—or the costs that it would entail. Since there was no NASA request behind this effort, once Lovelace tried to move forward, the military refused his access.

Meanwhile, Cobb had been enjoying the attention she was receiving and, according to some, had gotten it into her head that all of this was going to lead to some of the women actually flying in space. In fact, I’ve found no evidence that Lovelace ever implied that. This was a small program of scientific study, nothing more. Nevertheless, Cobb flew to Washington, D.C. along with Jane Hart and was given a meeting with then-vice president Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson was congenial—Cobb has always claimed he pledged his support—but immediately afterward, he sent word to have all support for the experiments withdrawn.

Far be it from me to defend the motives of LBJ, but consider this: The president had publicly committed the nation to returning a crew from the moon by the end of the decade—and this was at right about the same time when enough work had been done for Johnson to have a handle on just how hard that was going to be. He may or may not have supported the idea of women astronauts in general—we have no idea—but Jerrie Cobb standing before the press, pushing for “women in space” was definitely, irrefutably a distraction he didn’t need. And any resources devoted to it were being pulled directly away from the moon shot—which, to Johnson, was the goal.

Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule
NASA, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Cobb has always maintained the women were misled and betrayed. I’ve found no evidence of that. Testimony of many of the other participants suggests that Cobb simply got carried away—not that anyone could blame her. Let’s remember that at that time, she couldn’t have known what was really involved in space flight or what the program would look like over the next decade. No one did.

Of course, American women did start flying in space with the Space Shuttle. Do not for a moment think this means they didn’t face the same prejudices at NASA that they did everywhere else. The first class of women astronauts was, according to my sources, invited to help design an in-flight cosmetics kit—an offer they immediately and forcefully shot down. Thirty years later, women remain a distinct minority in the U.S. astronaut corps ...

The bigger question is not whether Cobb was betrayed, but why, in 1961, not a single U.S. woman had been hired to work in high-performance flight test—considering that so many (like Cobb, for example) had performed test flight and ferry duties during the war.

Why weren’t women welcome in the post-war aerospace economy, and why—even today—are so few women granted degrees in engineering of any sort? I don’t know the answer, though sexism is unquestionably in the mix, but it’s a question we need to address as a nation.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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