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Kelly Gorham

Balloon Cams Will Offer Unparalleled Views of the Total Solar Eclipse

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Kelly Gorham

The August 2017 total solar eclipse should be visible to some degree from just about everywhere in the continental United States—that is, if the weather cooperates. But now, even if it doesn't, everyone will be able to watch along, thanks to livestreamed video from balloon cams drifting miles above the Earth.

Astrophysicist Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University (MSU) got the idea to monitor the magnificent cosmic event from the air after reading about an airplane pilot's flight through the path of a 2013 eclipse. She thought her students might enjoy the chance to get an up-close look for themselves.

But what started as a class project quickly, well, ballooned. At last count, teams from more than 50 other schools had joined the Eclipse Ballooning Project. The core of the work remains close to home; MSU students have designed, built, and tested the equipment, and even offered multi-day training for students from other schools. Undergrads in the computer science and engineering programs even created the software that air traffic controllers will use to track the balloons on the big day.

Students carry a large white weather balloon across a tarmac.
Photo courtesy of the Montana Space Grant Consortium

The next step was to get the balloon cam footage to a larger audience. Seeing no reason to think small, Des Jardins went straight to the source, inviting NASA and the website Stream to join the fun. The space agency is now beefing up its website in anticipation of 500 million livestream viewers.

And what a view it should be. The balloons will rise more than 80,000 feet—even higher than NASA's airplane-mounted telescopes.

"It's a space-like perspective," Des Jardins said in a press statement. "From that height you can see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space."

Online or outside, Des Jardins says viewers can expect a kind of "deep twilight, with basically a 360-degree sunset" during the eclipse.

She urges everyone to get outside if they can to see the event with their own eyes, but expects the balloon cams will deliver something really special.

"On the ground, an eclipse just kind of happens to you. It just gets dark," Des Jardins told New Scientist. "From the air, you can see it coming and going. I think that perspective is really profound."

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Space
Eclipses Belong to Families That Span Millennia
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If you’re lucky enough to see the solar eclipse when it passes over America on August 21, you’ll bear witness to a centuries-long legacy. That’s because total eclipses of the sun aren’t isolated incidents that occur at random. They belong to interconnected eclipse families that humans have been using to track the phenomena since long before the first telescope was invented.

In the latest installment of StarTalk on Mashable, Neil deGrasse Tyson chats with meteorologist Joe Rao about the science behind eclipse families. According to Rao, eclipses follow Saros cycles which repeat every 18 years, 11 days, 8 hours. Astronomers keep track of many different Saros cycles. The eclipse on August 21, for example, is a member of the family Solar Saros 145. Every 18 years a Saros 145 eclipse falls over a different third of the Earth. In 1999, the great American eclipse’s “cousin” appeared in the skies over Europe and south Asia, and 18 years before that another relative could be seen over modern Russia. The Solar Saros clan can be traced all the way back to 1639 and it will keep going until 3009.

Today, scientists have space-age technology that allows them to track the moment of totality down to a fraction of a second. But thousands of years ago, before such satellite-tracking equipment was invented, ancient Babylonians only knew what they could observe from Earth. Their eclipse calculations ended up serving them pretty well: They were able to predict the same 18-year cycle we know to be true today.

Saros 145 isn’t the only family of eclipses making its way around the Earth. There are enough solar eclipse cycles to make the event a fairly common occurrence. If you’re curious to see how many will happen in your lifetime, here’s where you can calculate the number.

[h/t Mashable]

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‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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