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Why Do We Call Our Galaxy the Milky Way?

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There are two questions that have haunted wannabe astronomers for decades: “Why is our galaxy called the Milky Way?” and “Does it have anything to do with the delicious candy bar?”

Long ago, the Romans named the galaxy “via lactea,” which translates to “road of milk.” The Romans named it via lactea precisely because it looks like a milky patch of sky above the Earth at night.

But, the Romans weren’t the first to name the galaxy. The Romans got the name from the Greeks, who called it galaxias kyklos, which translates into “milky circle.”

According to the Greek myth, Zeus brought his son Heracles home for Hera to breastfeed while she was sleeping. Hera did not like Heracles, mainly because the child was half-mortal and was the result of one of Zeus’ affairs. When Hera awoke, she quickly pushed Heracles away, which caused a few drops of milk to spill into the night sky.

Scientifically, the bright patch of light is the result of looking at a concentrated band of billions of different stars in our galaxy. When we look up at the night sky, we are viewing the galaxy on its side. This view creates the glowing arc of light that we know as the Milky Way galaxy.

Other cultures have different names for the Milky Way. In Germany, the galaxy is called “Milchstrasse” and Norwegians call the galaxy “Melkeveien.”

Frank Mars invented the Milky Way candy bar after three years of research in 1923. It was the first filled candy bar. The flavor of the filling was inspired by the chocolate-malt milkshake that was popular at the time. When Frank Mars named the candy bar, he named it the Milky Way because of its milkshake-like filling.

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Space
Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."

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infographics
What You'll See of the 2017 Solar Eclipse From Your ZIP Code
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Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

On August 21, a total solar eclipse will cross over the continental United States, giving millions of people the exciting experience of watching the Sun briefly disappear, leaving the Earth in darkness. But whether or not you'll be able to experience total darkness depends on where you live. How do you know how much of the Sun you'll see? Check out this infographic from Vox illustrating what the eclipse will look like in each ZIP code in the U.S.

For instance, we at the Mental Floss offices in New York will still be standing in pretty bright light as the eclipse peaks at 2:44:55 p.m. EDT, with 71.4 percent of the Sun covered. We would need to drive 576 miles to see the total eclipse, according to Vox. In Lincoln, Nebraska, though, the Moon will obscure the whole Sun at 1:03:18 p.m. CDT, leaving residents in the dark for about a minute and a half. In Anchorage, Alaska, 1381 miles from the totality zone, residents will see 45.6 percent of the Sun disappear at the eclipse's peak at 9:16:21 a.m. AKDT.

Here's what it will look like in Nashville, according to Vox:

An infographic of the Moon's passage across the Sun over time.

The graphic makes it look like the sky will be quite dark even in Alaska, but that won't really be the case. In the path of the total eclipse, it will get dark and you'll be able to see a few stars, but elsewhere, the partial eclipse will only change the color of the sky slightly. Even a little bit of Sun is still really bright.

Input your own ZIP code over at Vox, and don't forget to grab your eclipse glasses before you look up.

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