Panda Thoughts: Eclipse Postmortem by Nathalie Ouellette

 Image credit:  George Lu  / CC BY | NASA.

Image credit: George Lu / CC BY | NASA.

As promised, this is a follow-up to my total solar eclipse adventure on (and around) August 21st 2017! You'll find my pre-eclipse thoughts and anticipations here.

Miraculously, I have somehow managed to transform myself from a completely hopeless night owl to a semi-functional adult who's able to work a 9-to-5 job in the last month. This made the prospect of waking up at 6am on Saturday, August 19th to begin our 16+ hour drive down to Columbia, Missouri slightly less terrible. Epsilon got dropped off at a lovely dogsitter's home, because trapping her in the car for that much driving seemed like a bad idea.

 Yeah I did. Image credit: Z. Morris.

Yeah I did. Image credit: Z. Morris.

 I'm so pale, I only go outside during solar eclipses.

I'm so pale, I only go outside during solar eclipses.

Getting across the Canada-U.S. border was a breeze, we were extremely thankful for our NEXUS/Global Entry cards. Our two noteworthy stops along the way were on the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. My Bucket List just so happens to include "Take a dip in every Great Lake", and I'm happy to say I'm now 4 for 5! We'll have to wait and see how and when I manage to check "Chase a tornado" off the list.

 A funny thing happened on the way to Tennessee.

A funny thing happened on the way to Tennessee.

We rolled into Columbia in the wee hours of the morning, extremely exhausted from the drive. (Full disclosure, my husband did the lion's share of the driving because he's awesome like that.) First thing we did was check the weather forecast for Monday, and it was not looking gOoOoOoOoOoOd lemme tell ya. We went to bed hoping for the best, but the forecast only got worst by the time we woke up on Sunday morning so we spent a few hours furiously trying to find a vacant hotel room eastward towards Tennessee. I got extremely lucky and grabbed what I can only assume was a last minute cancellation for a smoking room in Clarksville, Tennessee, just a handful of kilometres from the point of Greatest Eclipse! So we jumped back in the car and drove east for another 6 hours.

This decision was a little difficult, in all honesty, since we were worried the amount of effort we were pouring into this venture would raise the stakes to impossibly high for the big event to feel like it was all "worth it". At this point we were all in though. It's RIDE OR DIE. RIDE AND DIE? What do they say in those Fast & Furious car movies? Pretty sure it's the first one.

We finally arrived at the Kentucky/Tennessee border and set out to find our watching spot for the next day. We considered attending some of the events in Clarksville, or maybe even going to Hopkinsville, Kentucky aka Eclipseville, but after hearing that the little town of 25,000 was expecting over 200,000 people to descend upon it, we decided otherwise. We wanted our first eclipse experience to be a little more serene. We ended up finding an absolutely charming little park in Trenton, Kentucky, just 15 minutes North of our hotel and made sure to get there early enough in the morning to claim our spot.

 So I was pressing my eclipse viewer right onto my face. Was I  not  supposed to be doing that?

So I was pressing my eclipse viewer right onto my face. Was I not supposed to be doing that?

In the end we were only joined by a few other families, but the communal atmosphere was still present! We shared food, eclipse glasses, welder's masks and telescope setups. The eclipse started out as I expected. I had seen a partial eclipse before, but it's always nice to remind myself that, yes, there is indeed a moon orbiting the Earth and that, yes, it sometimes blocks the big shiny thing at the centre of the Solar System. The system works! As we got closer to totality though, things started getting a little freaky...

It was a sweltering hot day, the humidex must've risen close to 40°C, but the heat was definitely starting to let up. Shadows started getting sharper, you could see individual hairs on your shadow's head. Then daylight got sort of dim. Not really.... like nighttime, though. The best way I can describe it is like wearing sunglasses you can't take off. We were just minutes away at this point. Everyone got on their feet with eyes (and eye protection) pointed to the sky. The light was fading fast now, the Sun was a only tiny sliver through our lenses. We must've lost 5, maybe 10°C since the start of it. We were all quiet, which made the sudden onslaught of cricket noise all the more surprising. Street lamps turned on, stars and planets starting appearing in the sky, everything around us felt topsy turvy. The last of the Sun's crescent disappeared, and our glasses came off.

And there it was.

 This is the most true-to-life image of the total solar eclipse I could find online. Just imagine the sky a little lighter, and the corona eerily waving around, and you're  nearly  there. Image credit:  Conrad Pope .

This is the most true-to-life image of the total solar eclipse I could find online. Just imagine the sky a little lighter, and the corona eerily waving around, and you're nearly there. Image credit: Conrad Pope.

This... thing? It felt like I was witnessing something I wasn't supposed to see, that wasn't allowed to exist. Eclipse pictures don't quite convey the real life experience of seeing a total solar eclipse, because they're typically zoomed in on the eclipse itself with a black background. This was the real world all around me, the sky was an eerie blue grey, and there it was, the dang Sun... Except... not! It was this alien black star, a shimmering corona very softly flowing around it. And I was staring straight at it with my own two naked eyeballs. My husband was standing there with me, arms wrapped around me, and he saw the same thing I did with his eyeballs too! I felt goosebumps, tears slowly welling up in my eyes, and I couldn't even properly explain to you why! Truly, it was an emotional, spiritual, almost religious experience.

Now, I had read lots of stuff about what seeing a total solar eclipse would be like to prepare myself, and I was very much excited, but I'll admit I was skeptical. It seemed like it just couldn't be as good as these people were describing. When I think back on my own totality experience, I wonder if I've imagined the whole thing. Was it just a fever dream?? If I had read my own description here a few weeks ago, I probably would've been like "Alright, relax lady, you're clearly exaggerating". You might be thinking exactly that right now, and I guess that's the gift and curse of the eclipse. I don't think you can properly describe the experience to someone who hasn't experienced it themselves, but that will hopefully force them to find their way to a total eclipse one day, just to see if all the hype is justified.

And I hope you find your way to one if you missed this year's, because then this whole mess I just wrote might make a little more sense. ...Until then! Ride or die.

Panda Thoughts: Eclipse Edition by Nathalie Ouellette

 Image credit:  George Lu  / CC BY | NASA.

Image credit: George Lu / CC BY | NASA.

 Wow now that sure is... a car! Let me tell you! (I don't know anything about cars.) Image credit:  Drive2.com .

Wow now that sure is... a car! Let me tell you! (I don't know anything about cars.) Image credit: Drive2.com.

Hello everyone! The first thought I'd like to share with you is "wow, Mitsubishi made a car named the Eclipse Panda??". I'm not totally sure if the model of the car was "Eclipse" and they made some black and white version they called "Panda" because of the colouring or what, I'll admit my knowledge of cars is severely lacking. But it was still a cool thing to learn while Googling "panda eclipse" for pictures to insert in this post!

The 2017 solar eclipse is quickly approaching, and I'm sure most of you are at the very least aware and more likely very excited!!! My earliest memory of a solar eclipse was the May 10th annular solar eclipse that passed over nearly all of North America. I was in 1st grade and clearly remember building a little pinhole camera in class in preparation. Even then, 6 year old Nathalie knew she was witnessing a momentous occasion. To think that right there, before her very eyes, she could see proof of the motion and alignment of celestial objects much too large and distant for her to comprehend... I mean how amazing and simply awe-inspiring is that?? The answer is "very".

The 1994 eclipse was what we call an 'annular' eclipse, meaning that the geometry of the Earth-Moon-Sun alignment wasn't quite right for the Moon to fully cover the Sun during the eclipse. Instead of full coverage, you end up with a ring of fire still visible around the Moon. The precise geometry involved in solar eclipses is actually quite astounding, The diameter of the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun's. Buuuutttttt, amazingly, the Moon is also 400 times closer to Earth than the Sun! This means that the Sun and Moon look pretty much the same size in our sky! When they are perfectly aligned, BINGO! DINO DNA! I mean, SOLAR ECLIPSE!

What determines when we have an eclipse? NASA Goddard explains!

But wait a second, what's going on, the Moon completes one full orbit around the Earth about every 28 dang days, why aren't we seeing solar eclipses all the hecking time?? Also what's this deal with sometimes eclipses being annular, or even partial (when the Moon crosses the Sun higher or lower than at centre, and so never fully covers it). What's going on, Nathalie?! Well, you see, the orbit of the Moon is not a perfect circle nor is the angle of the orbit perfectly aligned with a line drawn from the Earth to the Sun.  The Moon is sometimes a little farther away from Earth along its orbit, meaning it appears smaller in the sky and can't cover the entire disc of the Sun. And sometimes, the height of the Moon along its orbit means its path doesn't cross exactly along the Sun's centre, so it swings over a little too high or too low. Everything needs to be just right for a total solar eclipse to occur, and lo and behold AUGUST 21st 2017's GOT IT ALL!

 Tyler Nordren has made a suite of beautiful posters, including this Mizzou one, celebrating the 2017 solar eclipse across America! Get yours  here !

Tyler Nordren has made a suite of beautiful posters, including this Mizzou one, celebrating the 2017 solar eclipse across America! Get yours here!

This is why my husband and I will be packing our bags and driving down 16 hours to Columbia, Missouri in the hopes of witnessing 2min37s of sweet sweet totality! During a pre-interview with CBC News (and with this xkcd comic in mind), I was asked what this eclipse means to science and scientists. And sure, there's lots we can see about how the 1919 total solar eclipse allowed Sir Arthur Eddington to perform the first experimental test of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Or we could talk about how the Sun's corona usually gets totally lost in the glare of how bright the Sun's disc is, but having the Moon act like a coronograph means we can see all the magical and mystical wonders of the corona! But in the end, to me, it's about validating the years I've spent on a computer, solving equations, writing code, reading books on celestial objects. It's about reconnecting with my pure love of space, and remembering the wonders every one of us can witness with our own eyes. For that 2min37s, I hope to be that child again.

If you're still on the fence about whether you should try to see the total eclipse, read a little bit about how otherworldly the experience has been for people who have experienced it before! That totally convinced me, personally. Once the eclipse is over, I'll write a post-mortem about my experience. And I'm already getting excited about the April 8th 2024 eclipse that will be crossing the eastern side of North America! Good to know there's a backup in seven years, but seven years is a long time nowadays so I'm happy to take my chance on Missouri this year. I wish you good luck and clear skies! Don't stare directly at the Sun (except if you have good eclipse glasses, or are in the throes of totality), and stay frosty!

The First Alien Handshake: Expanding Our Minds by Nathalie Ouellette

 An artist's rendition of the view from the surface of one of the exoplanets of the TRAPPIST-1 system. Image credit:  ESO/M. Kornmesser .

An artist's rendition of the view from the surface of one of the exoplanets of the TRAPPIST-1 system. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

"Answering the question 'are we alone' is a top science priority," says Thomas Zurbuchen, head of the NASA Science Mission Directorate. He participated in NASA's announcement of the discovery of seven exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system by the Spitzer Space Telescope in February 2017. Three of these exoplanets are in the so-called habitable zone: the area in any planetary system where liquid water, and potentially life, can exist.

 Cassini image showcasing Enceladus' plumes of ice water. Molecular hydrogen was detected within these plumes by the probe's specialised instruments. Image credit: NASA/JPL/STScI.

Cassini image showcasing Enceladus' plumes of ice water. Molecular hydrogen was detected within these plumes by the probe's specialised instruments. Image credit: NASA/JPL/STScI.

A mere two months later, Zurbuchen once again headed a NASA newscast announcing a new discovery made by the Cassini probe: a possible chemical food source for alien life in the form of molecular hydrogen had been detected on Saturn's sixth moon, Enceladus. The energy equivalent of 300 pizzas per hour, no less! That's a lot of satisfied astro grad students... "This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment," proclaimed Zurbuchen.

Recently, it feels like NASA has come out with a new announcement every few weeks hinting that we are not very far from reaching the holy grail of space science: finding signs of extra-terrestrial life. Scientists have been careful to temper their published results, specifying that we have only begun to see evidence of environments that may be suitable to harbour life rather than evidence of life itself. Nevertheless, some media outlets such as Newsweek have succumbed to temptation and egregiously reported clickbaity headlines such as 'NASA just found signs of life on a Saturnian moon', and have suffered a huge backlash for it. I would link the initial tweet here, but it has since been deleted. The system works!

 Tufa towers emerging from the extremely saline waters of Mono Lake, California, where the first ever microorganism capable of feeding off toxic arsenic was discovered. Image credit:  Seth Hancock .

Tufa towers emerging from the extremely saline waters of Mono Lake, California, where the first ever microorganism capable of feeding off toxic arsenic was discovered. Image credit: Seth Hancock.

The search for extra-terrestrial life has been at the forefront of scientists' minds for decades and, beyond being a purely scientific concern, is a matter of philosophy and making sense of our existence in the Universe. Exoplanets have been detected by astronomers since 1988, and they continue to be discovered at a breakneck pace. Among the several thousands already confirmed, those deemed to be in their parent star's habitable zone are of special interest. Astronomers are looking for Earth-like planets — of a similar size and mass — that have the capacity to retain liquid water, the element we've deemed essential for life. Ultimately, we have been forced to list a set of desirable characteristics for these exoplanets solely based on the only example of life we know: life on Earth.

 "Black  smokers ", hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor emitting black smoke rich with chemicals and particles that feed the bacteria forming the basis of a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. Image credit:  NOAA .

"Black smokers", hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor emitting black smoke rich with chemicals and particles that feed the bacteria forming the basis of a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. Image credit: NOAA.

That being said, lifeforms on our very own home world continue to surprise us by their resilience and robustness. We are always discovering new organisms that thrive in extreme conditions we would have otherwise thought completely deadly. In 2010, NASA made the breakthrough discovery of a microorganism, an "Arsenic Bug", the first of its kind, that feeds off the toxic chemical arsenic in Mono Lake, California, a large saline soda lake. ``The definition of life has just expanded," said Ed Weiler, NASA's then associate administrator for their Science Mission Directorate. ``As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it."

These incredibly sturdy organisms known as extremophiles may even tie back to the very origins of life on Earth. In 1977, scientists made a stunning discovery at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean: hydrothermal vents were heating the frigid deep sea waters and ejecting impressive amounts of chemicals into their surroundings. These dissolved chemicals provide the necessary energy to support bacteria that form the base of the food chain of an impressively diverse underwater ecosystem. Scientists now suggest that ancient hydrothermal vents found on Earth billions of years ago may have populated our world with its very first blips of life. This ecosystem may be very similar to the one hidden at the bottom of Enceladus' oceans!

 Expand your mind about aliens!!!!!

Expand your mind about aliens!!!!!

As we continue our tireless search for someone or something out there in the great dark void, we need to stop and ask ourselves: ``What are we even looking for?". A survey of the general population will show that we often rely on pieces of science fiction such as Star Trek and Star Wars to guide our expectations of alien life. The great majority of these works portray aliens as humanoid beings (I'll admit that Star Wars does a better job of mixing it up, as much as it pains me to say as a Trekkie myself). This makes for compelling story-telling; can you imagine Capt. Jean-Luc Picard having an intellectual showdown with a colony of bacteria (yes, I remember the episode where Wesley unleashes his nanobots colony, but you get my point)? Perhaps not as interesting as discoursing with an intelligent bipedal reptilian creature who happens to speak English. But is this how we should expect our first contact with aliens to play out?

If the molecular hydrogen detected on Enceladus indeed comes from hydrothermal vents not unlike our own, we could potentially find bacteria inhabiting this ocean world. But how can we expect life to evolve exactly as it did on Earth when these alien landscapes are so different from our own? The theory of evolution has showcased with what skill life manages to adapt itself to its surroundings. Intelligent octopus-like creatures may thrive on a purely aquatic planet. Alien life may solely exist in the form of viruses with which communication would be impossible. It may even take a form we have not yet obtained the capacity to imagine (my favourite, BEINGS OF PURE ENERGY-ERGY-ERGY-ERGY-ERGY). At the end of it all, when we do finally reach the point of the first hello, it may not be as simple as a handshake.

Star of Bethlehem by Nathalie Ouellette

 A depiction of the Star of Bethlehem. Image credit:  Garrett W.  /  CC BY

A depiction of the Star of Bethlehem. Image credit: Garrett W. / CC BY

Right around Christmas time, a lot of people come up to astronomers and ask what the Star of Bethlehem could have been. This “star”, also called the Christmas Star, is said to have appeared in the sky in time to announce the birth of Jesus Christ to the Three Wise Men, and would have lead them to Bethlehem, to honour the newborn. Modern astronomers are now trying to figure out what astronomical event might have appeared in the skies all those years ago as the Star of Bethlehem. In order to do that, it is first necessary to try and pin down the actual birthdate of Jesus. Historical clues recovered throughout many different sources seem to indicate that he may have actually been born around the year 5 B.C. Furthermore, some believe the Star of Bethlehem did not appear right when he was born, but perhaps a year or even more later. This wide range of years have left us with quite a few theories as to the real identity of the Christmas Star:

1) A series of two or more planets in near alignment in the sky may have been seen as a single very bright star. Using known planetary orbits, we are finding it difficult to find such an alignment to have occurred at the right time, unfortunately.

2) Some Chinese astronomers recorded a new star born from a supernova that was highly visible for 70 days in the constellation of Capricorn around 5 B.C. However, the religious scripts state that the Christmas Star moved from East to South over the course of many months, which cannot be so easily conciliated with a supernova progenitor.

3) A comet might have been the culprit, but they were typically seen as bad omens. Furthermore, we cannot find any other mention of such a noteworthy object in the literature.

4) Jupiter, a planet that can indeed be very bright in the sky, may have seemed near immobile due to it being at the end of one of its retrograde loops.

The verdict is still out as to what the Star of Bethlehem truly was. Despite all our technological advances, it may be difficult to backtrack to a definitive answer so many years in the past.

Merry Christmas!

Pluto vs Neptune: Mortal Kombat or RomCom? by Nathalie Ouellette

 In Theaters All The Time (but also never IRL....). Image credit: N. Ouellette.

In Theaters All The Time (but also never IRL....). Image credit: N. Ouellette.

Lots of people ask me what happened to Pluto. Is it still a planet? Does it even exist at all anymore? Is it a part of a massive Illuminati conspiracy meant to enslave us all? Well, in a
nutshell, Pluto still does exist, it’s been downgraded to a “dwarf planet” and the goat lord Baphomet forbids me to speak of our dark secrets. But that’s not the point of today’s post. I was recently asked about Pluto possibly colliding with the planet Neptune and the ensuing mayhem it might cause.

 A sideview of Pluto's orbit (in red) shown to be highly inclined compared to the plane of the Solar System.  Animation credit:  Lookangmany .

A sideview of Pluto's orbit (in red) shown to be highly inclined compared to the plane of the Solar System.  Animation credit: Lookangmany.

It’s a little known fact that Pluto’s orbit actually brings it closer to the Sun than Neptune at certain points due to its high eccentricity. The last time this happened was between February 7th 1979 and February 11th 1999. So wouldn’t this mean that the orbits of Pluto and

Neptune cross twice every cycle? Surprisingly, no! When Pluto’s orbit comes closest to the Sun and to Neptune’s orbit, it is also at its farthest point above Neptune’s path, which means the two planets always steer far clear of each other. The distance between the two at closest approach is 17 AU (the unit measuring one Earth-Sun distance). Pluto actually comes closer to Uranus at times, the shortest distance between the two being 11 AU!

 A view of Pluto's orbit (in red) from above, compared with Neptune's (blue planet). Animation credit:  Lookangmany .

A view of Pluto's orbit (in red) from above, compared with Neptune's (blue planet). Animation credit: Lookangmany.

Now, it is true that Pluto’s orbit is a little chaotic. Pluto is a very small body surrounded by lots of other objects, some of which are gas giant planets! So it is being pulled around quite a bit. One could argue that long term changes in Pluto’s orbit might one day bring it on a collision course with Neptune. Luckily, Pluto and Neptune are caught in a very precise 2:3 resonance with each other. This means that for every 2 full cycles Pluto goes through, Neptune will go through precisely 3 cycles. This is a very stable relationship between the two. If Pluto’s orbit were to change slightly in the future, so too would Neptune’s in order to respect the resonance.

So the moral of this story is Pluto and Neptune are in a very healthy relationship in which they each respect the other’s space. We should all strive to be more like Pluto and Neptune.