IMAGE CREDIT: David Prasad, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
IMAGE CREDIT: David Prasad, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Space Fanatics Are Paying Top Dollar to Fly Through the Eclipse

IMAGE CREDIT: David Prasad, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
IMAGE CREDIT: David Prasad, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

A spectacular solar eclipse is coming soon. While the rest of us suckers will be gazing, awestruck, from the ground (except for the winner of this contest), a small group of space enthusiasts will take a more proactive approach, chartering jets to fly directly into the path of the moon’s shadow.

Barring bad weather, the August 21 eclipse should be visible from everywhere in the continental United States. But for some people, "visible" is just not good enough. Teams of astronomers are sending balloon cams up to livestream the spectacle from the sky. Others will use plane-mounted telescopes to get an extremely rare glimpse of the happenings on the surface of the Sun and Mercury. Elsewhere, diehard eclipse lovers will board specially chartered flights for the sole purpose of spending a little more time in the all-consuming darkness.

"A total solar eclipse is one of nature's most awesome events," Sky & Telescope editor Kelly Beatty told Business Insider. "Anyone who's seen one knows that.” But from the air, Beatty said, “The sky is that much clearer and that much blacker. And that makes the corona that much brighter and more electric. It's really an electric-looking phenomenon."

The jets are small and the demand is high, which means a single seat can easily cost $10,000 or more. At most, the flight will buy passengers a few extra minutes in the dark.

Those who’ve done it before say the trip is worth every penny.

“I have no intention of ever missing an eclipse for the rest of my life. I don't care where it is, even in the remotest area of the Earth," said passenger Craig Small. "I have to be there, I will be there."

Co-passenger Joel Moskowitz agreed.

"When you see one, you want to see more,” he said. “You get hooked. Seeing the corona during totality is better than sex."

[h/t Business Insider]

ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
Look Closely—Every Point of Light in This Image Is a Galaxy
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Even if you stare closely at this seemingly grainy image, you might not be able to tell there’s anything to it besides visual noise. But it's not static—it's a sliver of the distant universe, and every little pinprick of light is a galaxy.

As Gizmodo reports, the image was produced by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, a space-based infrared telescope that was launched into orbit in 2009 and was decommissioned in 2013. Created by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) and Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS), it looks out from our galaxy toward the North Galactic Pole, a point that lies perpendicular to the Milky Way's spiral near the constellation Coma Berenices.

A close-up of a view of distant galaxies taken by the Herschel Space Observatory
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Each point of light comes from the heat of dust grains between different stars in a galaxy. These areas of dust gave off this radiation billions of years before reaching Herschel. Around 1000 of those pins of light belong to galaxies in the Coma Cluster (named for Coma Berenices), one of the densest clusters of galaxies in the known universe.

The longer you look at it, the smaller you’ll feel.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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