Sunday, December 22, 2019

Ten Seconds to Totality! Eclipse Chaser--Science in the Moon's Shadow by Ilima Loomis

"Ten seconds to totality"

Swallows retreat to their nests. The temperature drops ten degrees. For a few seconds, the sun is a thin white circle, sparkling with points of light. The sky turns blue-black, and a ghostly white halo glows out of the darkness. Just above the eclipse, the planet Venus hangs in the sky like a solitary blue diamond.

The corona is spectacular, reaching millions of miles out into space with long, soft, white plumes.

For anyone privileged to see the eclipse of August 21, 2017, it was a thrilling two minutes, a stunning sight when life seemed to stand still. But for physicist Dr. Shadia Habbal, a total eclipse is an opportunity to observe and record a brief view of the composition and behavior of the gases in the sun's corona. To record that event takes tons of equipment and a large crew, a huge scientific expedition which can fail because of  the vagaries of sandstorms, smoke from wildfires, and mere fluffy clouds. Dr. Habbal had known such disappointments, but on August 21, 2017, everything came together.  There was an eclipse path across the well-populated North America, and the weather predictions looked good for a pass from Oregon to South Carolina, allowing more humans than any in history to view it, and Shadia oversaw five teams with identical equipment to record the chemical activity of gases in the corona from different sites to be studied for years afterward.

Wispy clouds appeared, with a bit of smoky haze from forest fires on the horizon, but as the crucial time drew near, the sky was sparkling clear. This time the recording instruments were carefully calibrated and controlled by computer software, and when the call of "ten seconds to totality" came, all the scientists stepped away from their devices, fearing the slightest tremor of  a hand would disturb their functions. But when the eclipse ended, the crew rushed to their instruments.
"What's the first thing after? Backup everything."

Not nearly all space science is done extra-terrestrially by space probes or lunar and Mars Rovers. Most such research is done from good ol' terra firma  And Ilima Loomis's just published Eclipse Chaser: Science in the Moon's Shadow (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) backups this stellar event for middle-reader science readers. Author Loomis captures the heart-stopping moment of a full eclipse, but she also describes the importance of those two minutes to gather data of great importance to astrophysics--the chemical activity in the sun's corona only observable during an eclipse. As the winter solstice reminds us, there's no light or life for earthlings without our sun, and knowing more about its nature is vital science. Photos of  Shadia and her teammates and illustrations and diagrams of how an eclipse occurs bring it all into focus, backed up by the solid appendix of all Scientists in the Field volumes, with glossary and bibliography to serve rising young science students doing projects and reports. A totally stellar book!

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