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Totality and the April 8th total solar eclipse offers a rare chance to study the Sun.

We’re less than three weeks out now, until the April 8th total solar eclipse crosses North America. And while over 31 million residents live in the path of totality, many more will make the journey to briefly stand in the shadow of the Moon. Several scientific projects are also underway to take advantage of the event.

The eclipse traverses Mexico, the United States from Texas to Maine, and the Canadian Maritime provinces before heading out over the Atlantic. Maximum totality for this eclipse in 4 minutes and 27 seconds, longer than the 2017 total solar eclipse. This is the only total solar eclipse worldwide for 2024, and the final total solar eclipse for a generation for the contiguous United States until 2044.

Brief History of Total Solar Eclipse Science

Eclipses have always offered astronomers a chance to carry out rare observations. The element helium (named after ‘Helios’ the Greek god of the Sun) was discovered in the solar chromosphere during the August 18th, 1868 total solar eclipse. Astronomers swept the sky near the eclipsed Sun in July 29th, 1878, looking for the hypothetical planet Vulcan. World War I thwarted astronomer’s plans to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity during the August 21st, 1914 eclipse. This had to wait until Arthur Eddington led an expedition to Principe in 1919. Eddington vindicated Einstein with measurements of the deflection of stars observed near the Sun during totality.

Stranger experiments continued right up into the 20th century. One of the more bizarre eclipse experiments was hunting for the elusive ‘Allais Effect,’ looking for the deflection of a pendulum during totality. Alas, Maurice Allais’ findings alluding to this fringe idea have never been replicated. Maybe LIGO Livingston just outside the path of totality on 2024 could take up the challenge?

Four Eclipse Science Projects

In 2023, NASA selected four major experiments to chase totality:

1. The Solar Patrol sunspot campaign: This effort is led by Thangasamy Velusamy out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This initiative seeks to monitor subtle changes in the magnetic fields of active sunspot regions as the Moon passes over them. The team will use the 34-meter Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope based in California (outside of the path of totality) to carry out this experiment. We’re headed towards the peak of Solar Cycle 25 over the coming year, so the odds are pretty good that the Sun will be dappled with multiple sunspots, come eclipse day.

2. SuperDARN to probe the ionosphere: Led by Bharat Kunduri out of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, this experiment seeks to measure how the upper ionosphere reacts to the eclipse. Crucially, totality passes over three SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network) sites during the eclipse, offering an unprecedented opportunity.

3. Pro/AM ‘Listening Party’ to observe QSOs: Ham radio operators are familiar with the enhanced nighttime reflectivity of the upper ionosphere. This effect allows for reception of distant stations that are otherwise silent in the daytime. This sort of contact is known as a ‘QSO’ in ham radio-speak, and it also occurs during an eclipse, as totality briefly mimics the approach of night. Nathaniel Frissell of the University of Scranton is leading an effort to make QSO contacts on April 8th. A good strategy is to pick an AM station a few hundred miles distant and listen before, during and after totality passes. Even today, most cars still come equipped with AM/FM radios. This is also an experiment that can be done from outside of the path of totality.

Eclipse chasing
A modified, eclipse-chasing WB-57 aircraft is towed out for a mission. NASA

Chasing the Shadow

4. NASA’s WB-57 missions to take flight once again. The most ambitious endeavor is once again underway, as NASA’s two converted WB-57 Canberra aircraft will once again chase the shadow of the Moon. NASA owns the last three Canberra aircraft still in service. Two of these aircraft will fly out of Ellington Field outside of Houston, Texas
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The Brightest Gamma Ray Burst Ever Seen Came from a Collapsing Star

grb profiles

After a journey lasting about two billion years, photons from an extremely energetic gamma-ray burst (GRB) struck the sensors on the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope on October 9th, 2022. The GRB lasted seven minutes but was visible for much longer. Even amateur astronomers spotted the powerful burst in visible frequencies.

It was so powerful that it affected Earth’s atmosphere, a remarkable feat for something more than two billion light-years away. It’s the brightest GRB ever observed, and since then, astrophysicists have searched for its source.

NASA says GRBs are the most powerful explosions in the Universe. They were first detected in the late 1960s by American satellites launched to keep an eye on the USSR. The Americans were concerned that the Russians might keep testing atomic weapons despite signing 1963’s Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Now, we detect about one GRB daily, and they’re always in distant galaxies. Astrophysicists struggled to explain them, coming up with different hypotheses. There was so much research into them that by the year 2,000, an average of 1.5 articles on GRBs were published in scientific journals daily.

There were many different proposed causes. Some thought that GRBs could be released when comets collided with neutron stars. Others thought they could come from massive stars collapsing to become black holes. In fact, scientists wondered if quasars, supernovae, pulsars, and even globular clusters could be the cause of GRBs or associated with them somehow.

GRBs are confounding because their light curves are so complex. No two are identical. But astrophysicists made progress, and they’ve learned a few things. Short-duration GRBs are caused by the merger of two neutron stars or the merger of a neutron star and a black hole. Longer-duration GRBs are caused by a massive star collapsing and forming a black hole.

This sample of 12 GRB light curves shows how no two are the same. Image Credit: NASA
This sample of 12 GRB light curves shows how no two are the same. Image Credit: NASA

New research in Nature examined the ultra-energetic GRB 221009A, dubbed the “B.O.A.T: Brightest Of All Time,” and found something surprising. When it was initially discovered, scientists said it was caused by a massive star collapsing into a black hole. The new research doesn’t contradict that. But it presents a new mystery: why are there no heavy elements in the newly uncovered supernova?

The research is “JWST detection of a supernova associated with GRB 221009A without an r-process signature.” The lead author is Peter Blanchard, a Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) postdoctoral fellow.

“The GRB was so bright that it obscured any potential supernova signature in the first weeks and months after the burst,” Blanchard said. “At these times, the so-called afterglow of the GRB was like the headlights of a car coming straight at you, preventing you from seeing the car itself. So, we had to wait for it to fade significantly to give us a chance of seeing the supernova.”

“When we confirmed that the GRB was generated by the collapse of a massive star, that gave us the opportunity to test a hypothesis for how some of the heaviest elements in the universe are formed,” said lead author Blanchard. “We did not see signatures of these heavy elements, suggesting that extremely energetic GRBs like the B.O.A.T. do not produce these elements. That doesn’t mean that all GRBs do not produce them, but it’s a key piece of information as we continue to understand where these heavy elements come from. Future observations with JWST will determine if the B.O.A.T.’s ‘normal’ cousins produce these elements.”

Scientists know that supernova explosions forge heavy elements. They’re an important source of elements from oxygen (atomic number 8) to rubidium (atomic number 37) in the interstellar medium. They also produce heavier elements than that. Heavy elements are necessary to form rocky planets like Earth and for life itself. But it’s important to note that astrophysicists don’t completely understand how heavy elements are produced.

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Stellar Winds Coming From Other Stars Measured for the First Time

interstellar jpg

An international research team led by the University of Vienna has made a major breakthrough. In a study recently published in Nature Astronomy, they describe how they conducted the first direct measurements of stellar wind in three Sun-like star systems. Using X-ray emission data obtained by the ESA’s X-ray Multi-Mirror-Newton (XMM-Newton) of these stars’ “astrospheres,” they measured the mass loss rate of these stars via stellar winds. The study of how stars and planets co-evolve could assist in the search for life while also helping astronomers predict the future evolution of our Solar System.

The research was led by Kristina G. Kislyakova, a Senior Scientist with the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Vienna, the deputy head of the Star and Planet Formation group, and the lead coordinator of the ERASMUS+ program. She was joined by other astrophysicists from the University of Vienna, the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LAMOS) at the Sorbonne University, the University of Leicester, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).

Astrospheres are the analogs of our Solar System’s heliosphere, the outermost atmospheric layer of our Sun, composed of hot plasma pushed by solar winds into the interstellar medium (ISM). These winds drive many processes that cause planetary atmospheres to be lost to space (aka. atmospheric mass loss). Assuming a planet’s atmosphere is regularly replenished and/or has a protective magnetosphere, these winds can be the deciding factor between a planet becoming habitable or a lifeless ball of rock.

interstellar 1 jpg
Logarithmic scale of the Solar System, Heliosphere, and Interstellar Medium (ISM). Credit: NASA-JPL

While stellar winds mainly comprise protons, electrons, and alpha particles, they also contain trace amounts of heavy ions and atomic nuclei, such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, and even iron. Despite their importance to stellar and planetary evolution, the winds of Sun-like stars are notoriously difficult to constrain. However, these heavier ions are known to capture electrons from neutral hydrogen that permeates the ISM, resulting in X-ray emissions. Using data from the XXM-Newton mission, Kislyakova and her team detected these emissions from other stars.

These were 70 Ophiuchi, Epsilon Eridani, and 61 Cygni, three main sequence Sun-like stars located 16.6, 10.475, and 11.4 light-years from Earth (respectively). Whereas 70 Ophiuchi and 61 Cygni are binary systems of two K-type (orange dwarf) stars, Epsilon Eridani is a single K-type star. By observing the spectral lines of oxygen ions, they could directly quantify the total mass of stellar wind emitted by all three stars. For the three stars surveyed, they estimated the mass loss rates to be 66.5±11.1, 15.6±4.4, and 9.6±4.1 times the solar mass loss rate, respectively.

In short, this means that the winds from these stars are much stronger than our Sun’s, which could result from the stronger magnetic activity of these stars. As Kislyakova related in a University of Vienna news release:

“In the solar system, solar wind charge exchange emission has been observed from planets, comets, and the heliosphere and provides a natural laboratory to study the solar wind’s composition. Observing this emission from distant stars is much more tricky due to the faintness of the signal. In addition to that, the distance to the stars makes it very difficult to disentangle the signal emitted by the astrosphere from the actual X-ray emission of the star itself, part of which is “spread” over the field-of-view of the telescope due to instrumental effects.”

608c8c49dc jpeg
XMM-Newton X-ray image of the star 70 Ophiuchi (left) and
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How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 16 jpg

By Michael Lanza

“How hard will that hike be?” That’s a question that
all dayhikers and backpackers, from beginners to experts, think about all the
time—and it’s not always easy to answer. But there are ways of evaluating the
difficulty of any hike, using readily available information, that can greatly
help you understand what to expect before you even leave home. Here’s
how.

No matter how relatively easy or arduous the hike you’re considering, or where you fall on the spectrum of hiking experience or personal fitness level, this article will tell you exactly how to answer that question—and which questions to ask and what information to seek to reach that answer. This article shares what I’ve learned over four decades of backpacking and dayhiking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, and this knowledge can help ensure that you and your companions or your family don’t get in over your heads.

Whether you’re new to dayhiking or backpacking, a
parent planning a hike with young kids, or a fit and experienced dayhiker or
backpacker contemplating one of the toughest hikes you’ve ever attempted, it’s
important to have a good sense of what you’ll face on a new and unfamiliar hike
and whether it’s within your abilities.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 17 jpg
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Pam Solon backpacking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about backpacking in Glacier.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”A backpacker hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.” class=”wp-image-61235″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 150w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/06224534/Gla7-117-Pam-Solon-backpacking-the-Dawson-Pass-Trail-in-Glacier-National-Park.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Pam Solon backpacking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about backpacking in Glacier.

Exceeding your limits or those of someone with you can
invite unwanted consequences—and the person with the least stamina,
abilities, or experience often dictates any party’s pace, limits, and outcomes.
Those consequences
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