Last year’s solar eclipse viewed by record number of Americans

People continued to seek information for months after the eclipse.

The August 21, 2017, “Great American Eclipse” was observed by 216 million or 88 percent of American adults over 18 either in person or online, according to a survey conducted by Jon Miller, director of the International Center for Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan’s (U-M) Institute for Social Research.

Following the event, Americans continued to seek information about it through library visits, online searches, and conversations with their friends, Miller found in his national study, which is available for viewing online.

Miller polled people on the evening of August 21 and continued doing so for the following week. He followed up by surveying some of the same people and some new ones at the end of 2017 and again in February-March of this year.

“What we found was there was a substantial amount of people going online, going to libraries, talking to their friends, trying to figure out what was going to happen with the eclipse before and after the event. To a large extent, scholars have watched what people do before a scientific event but not what they do after. The event can be a stimulus that causes people to look for more information,” he said.

The number of Americans who viewed the total solar eclipse, either directly or electronically, is among the largest to view any public event, including sporting events and entertainment productions.

Of the 21 million adults who traveled to locations in or near the narrow path of totality, respondents engaged in an average of 24 activities seeking information about the eclipse in the two months leading up to the event.

Several months after the eclipse, many people continued to seek information about it and about space-related issues, Miller found in his year-end poll.

Information sought prior to the eclipse most frequently involved searches for safe methods of viewing it, including eclipse glasses and pinhole projectors.

Just three percent of those who observed the eclipse did so as part of an organized group. The majority viewed it with family members, friends, or co-workers.

“This level of public interest and information seeking about a science-oriented event is unparalleled,” Miller emphasized. “It suggests that groups and organizations interested in fostering increased adult interest in science should think about post-event programming to provide resources and a forum for these discussions.”

Last year’s spectacle was the first total solar eclipse visible in the mainland United States since 1979.

Hurricane relief efforts impacted by solar flares

Better prediction is needed for space weather events.

Solar flares caused radio blackouts that disrupted hurricane relief efforts in September 2017, when three separate Atlantic Ocean storms posed a threat to land, according to a new study published in the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) journal Space Weather.

As category 5 Hurricane Irma made landfall in Barbuda, Tropical Storm Katia intensified in the Gulf of Mexico, and Tropical Storm Jose headed toward the open ocean on September 6, two major solar flares erupted on the Sun’s surface.

Both tropical storms were upgraded to hurricanes later that day. Both solar storms were of the most intense X-class, with the first an X-2.2 and the second an X-9.3.

As warned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, radio communications went down for several hours during the morning and afternoon, as reported by amateur radio operators helping with emergency communications to the islands affected by Hurricane Irma.

Several days later, NOAA confirmed that high-frequency radio, used by emergency bands, did not operate for as long as eight hours on September 6.

Another X-class flare that erupted on the Sun on September 10 took radio communication down for three hours, just as Hurricane Jose battered the Bahamas and Leeward Islands, and Hurricane Irma bore down on Cuba.

A group of licensed amateur radio operators known as the Hurricane Watch Net confirmed the solar flares disrupted radio communications over several critical hours.

“You can hear a solar flare on the air as it’s taking place,” said Hurricane Watch Net manager Bobby Graves of Jackson, Mississippi. “It’s like hearing bacon fry in a pan; it just all of a sudden gets real staticky and then it’s like someone just turns the light completely off, you don’t hear anything.  And that’s what happened this last year on two occasions. We had to wait ’til the power of those solar flares weakened, so that our signals could actually bounce back off the atmosphere. It was a helpless situation.”

The coinciding of both space and Earth weather aggravated an already tense situation, confirmed study lead author Rob Redmon, space scientist with NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) in Boulder, Colorado.

During hurricanes and tropical storms, amateur radio operators transmit crucial information regarding people who need rescue.

The study provides suggestions on improving the prediction of space weather and discusses safeguards that can be put in place to better deal with a joint recurrence of Earth and space weather. It also acknowledges that some protections that already were in place did alleviate the situation.

“Safeguards put in place to prevent dangerous disruption to GPS from solar events worked. In many ways, we were ready. Some things that could have caused big problems didn’t, but shortwave radio is always tricky to use during solar events. But good radio operators are aware of the events and will work hard to overcome problems,” stated Mike Hapgood, head of space weather at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom.

 

Small space crystals reveal sun’s youth

Astronomers found that the sun had an explosive and energetic start to its existence.

Microscopic space crystals known as hibonite show that the young sun was an explosive, fiery mess, new research in the journal Nature Astronomy reports.

Long before the Earth first formed, the sun jetted out constant eruptions and massive quantities of high-energy particles. Though such events took place long, long ago, hibonite trapped the energy in a way where it can still be observed today.

The tiny crystals are much too small to see with the naked eye. Even so, they contain chemical traces of the early sun that give insight into what our solar system was like long before any of the planets formed.

Stars come about in dense, cold clouds of dust and gas. During that stage, they generate intense heat and pull materials towards their center. Though the sun experiences solar flares and coronal mass ejections today, it used to be much more wild during its stellar birth.

“A young star is more active in that it has more frequent and violent eruptions that launch particles and radiation into its surroundings,” said study co-author Philipp Heck, an associate curator of meteoritics and polar studies at The Field Museum in Chicago, according to Live Science.

Stars as big as the sun typically take 50 million years to settle into their mature state. Once there, they can last for tens of billions of years before exploding.

To see if the sun had a energetic youth, researchers from the Field Museum in Chicago analyzed samples collected from the Murchison meteorite that exploded over Australia in 1969. The remains contained dust grains shaped by supernova that existed before the sun.

The team then shot hibonite crystals within the rock with lasers, a process that released the neon and helium inside them. That revealed a unique mix of isotopes that confirmed the sun was extremely energetic billions of years ago.

Such information is important because it sheds new light onto, not just the sun, but the early solar system. That in turn could help scientists get a much better understanding of the mechanisms that govern our universe.

“What I think is exciting is that this tells us about conditions in the earliest Solar System, and finally confirms a long-standing suspicion,” added Heck, according to Phys.org. “If we understand the past better, we’ll gain a better understanding of the physics and chemistry of our natural world.”