What We Learned So Far From The Total Solar Eclipse of 2017—And Why There's Much More to Come

In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.
In a composite photo, the International Space Station passes in front of the Sun during the total eclipse on August 21, 2017.
NASA

Americans went mad for the total solar eclipse on August 21—and so did scientists. Earlier this month, researchers at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans teased out the first results of experiments performed during the eclipse.

"From a NASA perspective, there is no other single event that has informed so many scientific disciplines," Lika Guhathakurta, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, said. Among the affected fields include solar dynamics, heliophysics, Earth science, astrobiology, and planetary science. "The eclipse provided an unprecedented opportunity for cross-disciplinary studies."

To that end, NASA grants and centers supported Sun-Moon-Earth alignment research during the eclipse that involved balloons, ground measurements, telescopes, planes that chased the eclipse, and a dozen spacecraft from the agency, as well as from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the European Space Agency, and the Japanese Space Agency. In some regions, scientists meticulously mapped responses to the total eclipse by the land and the lower atmosphere. They measured ambient temperature, humidity, winds, and changes in carbon dioxide. These data were taken to find new insights into the celestial event, which occurs somewhere on the Earth every 18 months. (Calculate here how many you could potentially see in your lifetime.)

PEERING THROUGH THE "HOLE" IN THE IONOSPHERE

Of particular interest was how the eclipse affects the ionosphere, the barrier region between the atmosphere and what we think of as outer space; it is the altitude range where auroras occur, and where the International Space Station and low Earth orbit satellites are found. The ionosphere is affected by radiation from the Sun above and by weather systems below. The eclipse gave researchers the chance to study what happens to the ionosphere when solar radiation drops suddenly, as opposed to the gradual changes of the day-night cycle.

A total eclipse essentially creates a "hole" in the ionosphere. Greg Earle of Virginia Tech led a study on how radio waves would interact with the eclipse-altered ionosphere. Current models predicted that during the brief interval of the eclipse, the hole would cause waves to travel much farther and much faster than usual. The models, it turns out, are correct, and data collected during the eclipse supported their predictions. This facilitates a better understanding of what happens on non-eclipse days, and how variances in the ionosphere can affect signals used for navigation and communication.

FINDING UNEXPECTED INTERACTIONS

"NASA's solar eclipse coverage was the agency's most watched and most followed event on social media to date," said Guhathakurta, with over 4 billion engagements. That sort of frenzied public interest for what amounted to a 90-minute celestial event over a thin strip of the United States, with around two minutes of totality for any given area, allowed scientists to engage "citizen scientists" to help with data collection.

Matt Penn of the National Solar Observatory led the Citizen CATE project (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse), which deployed 68 small, identical telescopes to amateur astronomers across the eclipse path. "At all times, at least one CATE telescope was in the shadow looking at the [Sun's] corona," Penn said. "And sometimes we had five telescopes looking at the corona simultaneously." This resulted in a lot of data. "We got 45,000 images, and to go along with that, we got 50,000 calibration images."

girl in eclipse glasses looks up at the sun
Jeff Curry/Getty Images for Mastercard

They're still working on the data processing, but by combining images similar to the way smartphone cameras create HDR images in certain lighting conditions, scientists are able to view the Sun's corona—the shimmering halo of plasma that surrounds it—in stunning new detail. Image-processing techniques on the high-resolution data yielded surprising results. Specifically: There are interactions between the "cold" atmosphere of the Sun—the chromosphere, which is "only" 10,000°F—and the hot corona, which is 1,000,000°F. "We're hoping to analyze these data in more detail and come up with some publications in the near future," Penn said. The project's telescopes remain in the hands of the public, and new experiments are underway.

"Most of our volunteers were going see the eclipse anyway, and what we did was try to enable them to elevate their experience by participating in research. And that goes from collecting the data to publication," Penn tells Mental Floss. "We could have had 200 sites easily with the amount of interest we had." The public's keen interest in the eclipse will spur experiments of commensurate ambition in 2024, when North America again experiences a total solar eclipse.

ATTEMPTING TO ANALYZE DATA NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE

Penn's project wasn't the only science conducted with a public-engagement aspect. The Eclipse Ballooning Project, led by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University, enabled 55 teams of college and high school students to fly weather balloons to above 100,000 feet. There, they took measurements to see how the eclipse affects the weather-influencing lower atmosphere. The balloons also live-streamed the eclipse as it occurred across the continent. To give a sense of how long the project has been in development: When it was conceived, live-streaming as we experience it today had not yet been invented.

She tells Mental Floss that the project's success has spurred ideas for future large-team, long-term projects for the 2024 eclipse. "For me, the biggest lesson is, you have to have something that is really exciting and challenging in order to get students involved, and in order for the general public to be involved," she says.

Results from the Eclipse Ballooning Project are forthcoming, a common refrain by eclipse researchers. "We're really excited about taking this new type of data that no one has ever taken before, and now we are in the phase when we realize no one has ever tried to analyze data like this before," Penn says. "So we're inventing the analysis as well, and it's going to take time."

More results are sure to come in 2018.

Tonight, the Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks on Earth Day

iStock/dmoralesf
iStock/dmoralesf

Tonight, look up and you might see shooting stars streaking across the sky. On the night of Monday, April 22—Earth Day—and the morning of Tuesday, April 23, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll probably see meteors zooming across the heavens every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know about this meteor shower.

What is the Lyrid meteor shower?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

How to See the Lyrid Meteor Shower

Monday night marks a waning gibbous Moon (just after the full Moon), which will reflect a significant amount of light. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Monday night—when you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour—your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrid meteor shower. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

Other Visible Bodies During the Lyrid meteor shower

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

What to Do if There's Bad Weather During the Lyrid Meteor Shower

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of April 23. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on April 24 and 25, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrid meteor shower will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 5, the Eta Aquarids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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