Who doesn’t have questions about space, right?
With the total solar eclipse making its appearance in a few days, we thought it’d be fun for our Junior Reporters to ask a space expert about the eclipse, and well, anything space!
Special thanks to our friend Dan Zevin at Multiverse, Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley for answering these questions—we’re now officially ready to witness this amazing space spectacle!
1) Justin, Age 10: Why is America the best place to view this particular eclipse?
Dan Z.: Well Justin, it just happens to be our lucky moment this time. You see, total solar eclipses happen about every sixteen months somewhere around the world when the Sun, Moon, and Earth align just right. Often they can be fairly inaccessible, given the surface of Earth is mostly ocean. But on August 21, 2017, just about everyone in the United States can drive to see the total solar eclipse if they so choose as it crosses the country from Oregon to South Carolina. For those not within the path of totality, or not up for battling the crowds and traffic, you’ll at least see a partial solar eclipse. But be sure to always wear eclipse safety glasses when looking at the Sun! The only time the glasses can be taken off is when you are within the narrow band of totality, and only during the brief moments of totality, when the Moon completely blocks the light of the Sun. Check out our Safety and Resources pages to learn more. If you’re not sure where the path of totality will be, check out our simulator: https://eclipsemega.movie/simulator
2. Chloe, Age 11: Were you always into space?
Dan Z.: I think so Chloe! I remember always being fascinated by space, especially when I went camping and could see thousands of stars under truly dark night skies. But a turning point for me was when an amateur astronomer (someone who’s hobby is astronomy) brought his telescope to my school and I saw Saturn for the first time up close – those rings are amazing! If you want to try and get some telescopes to your school, contact a local astronomy club via the Night Sky Network: https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov
3) Thomson, Age 8: How many planets are there in Space that have air in their atmosphere?
Dan Z: Guess what Thomson – we don’t know! Although there are no other planets in our own solar system with a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere like ours here on Earth, we are discovering new planets all the time – planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, and astronomers guess there are millions of them. Some seem similar to Earth, and soon we will have a better sense of their atmospheres and other features. You are living in a golden age of astronomy, and I predict in your lifetime we’ll be able to say there are not only other planets like Earth, but there is life on some of them too!
4) Thomson, Age 8: How does the Aurora Borealis start?
Dan Z: Probably a better question for my boss Thomson – she’s an aurora scientist! But in a nutshell, the aurora borealis (aka northern or southern lights, depending on what hemisphere you live in) start when charged particles from the Sun excite particles in Earth’s magnetic field, which emanates from the north and south poles. When the excited particles in the magnetic field travel back toward the poles, they eventually collide and interact with the nitrogen/oxygen in our atmosphere. These particles in our atmosphere then become charged or “excited” and glow in the process, giving us this grand spectacle of nature, something I still hope to see at least once in my lifetime.
5) Sunil, Age 10: Why does the moon cover up the sun in a solar eclipse?
Dan Z.: Amazingly Sunil, it’s just a coincidence of nature! Our Moon is about 400 times smaller than the size of our Sun, but the Sun is 400 times farther away than our Moon, so mathematically they match in size from our point of view here on Earth. And when the Moon and Earth align just right while they are orbiting the Sun (and the Moon of course orbiting the Earth) the Moon will block our view of the Sun. Sometimes the Moon is a little farther out in its orbit though, and so it doesn’t cover the Sun completely when they align. That’s when you get what is known as an annular eclipse, when a ring of the Sun completely surrounds the Moon in front of it. This is also known as the Ring of Fire. It’s a fabulous occurrence to watch too, but perhaps not as awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse, when the Moon blocks out the Sun entirely turning day to night and revealing the Sun’s faint atmosphere which glows beautifully in the sky above for a few brief minutes.
Want to know more about the upcoming total solar eclipse? Check out our coverage here.