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A light in the dark
The solar corona during a total solar eclipse. Photo: Phil Hopkins

Close the doors, pull the shades, silence all devices, and hunker down. On Monday, April 8th, The Planetary Society will broadcast the total solar eclipse live, hosted live by Tim Dodd of Everyday Astronaut, Bill Nye, “Science Guy,” and special guest former NASA engineer Mark Rober. Coverage begins at 9:30 AM PDT.

First, a quick explainer. Here on Earth, we may witness two types of eclipses: solar and lunar. Here’s the difference: a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, causing the moon to cast a shadow on Earth – sort of a Moon Pie, sandwiched between a much larger star and planet. A lunar eclipse occurs when Earth is between the sun and the moon, causing Earth to cast a shadow on the moon.

Our troubles lie not in our stars…

There was a time when a solar eclipse was considered a very, very bad thing, or at least a very powerful thing in cosmic terms. Superstitious ancestors may have believed that an eclipse signaled changes in health or fortune, for better or worse (usually for the worse). In ancient China, solar and lunar eclipses were interpreted as foretelling the future of the Emperor, attributing a solar eclipse to the sun being devoured by a celestial dragon, and ditto for the moon during a lunar eclipse: the idiomatic Chinese term for “eclipse” is “shi,” which means “to eat.”

Greek poet Archilochus, writing of a total solar eclipse on April 6, 647 BCE, observed, “There is nothing beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from midday, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men.”

A bit later, in 1133 CE, King Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror, died on the day of a total eclipse, and that set medieval tongues a-wagging for centuries. As the concept of radiation became partially known, people feared that the solar rays emitted during an eclipse would harm a fetus in utero, kill crops, cause rivers to dry up, poison potato salad prepared during the event, or even produce those two-headed turtles you sometimes see at county fairs.

The only part of all the above that’s even slightly true is that staring at a partial solar eclipse without eye protection “can cause temporary to permanent damage to the retina,” according to Bruce Betts, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for Pasadena-based The Planetary Society.

Dr. Betts is the author of Astronomy for Kids: How to Explore Outer Space with Binoculars, a Telescope, or Just Your Eyes!  He regularly writes for The Planetary Society member magazine, The Planetary Report, and on his blog on  His X (Twitter) feed @RandomSpaceFact provides easy night-sky astronomy and random space facts, and his Random Space Fact videos provide facts and humor in brief segments.  He also co-hosts the “What’s Up?” feature on the weekly Planetary Radio show (150 radio stations, Sirius/XM satellite radio, and podcast) as well as being a frequent guest on The History Channel’s “The Universe.”  He is an Alumnus Senior Scientist with the Planetary Science Institute. His new book series for children ages 7 to 10, with individual books dedicated to each of the planets, will be published at the end of 2024 and in early 2025.

Hope for flat-Earth believers

We caught up with Dr. Betts moments before press time to discuss the potential impact of the coming eclipse.

“This event, even though only a partial view is possible in Pasadena, could be an occasion for people to take an interest in what’s happening up there,” he says. “Most kids today learn about space through two-dimensional digital maps, photographs, and models versus an old-fashioned globe. But an eclipse is an opportunity to realize that the sun, the moon and the earth are actual, three-dimensional, moving objects. The event makes that geometry more visceral and tangible.”

The Planetary Society was co-founded by the beloved-though-oft-parodied Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan, who served NASA as an advisor beginning in the 1950s, along with fellow scientists and co-founders Louis Friedman and Bruce Murray. Today, Bill Nye serves as CEO, and The Planetary Society claims to be the world’s largest and most influential non-profit space organization, engaging a global community of more than 2 million space enthusiasts.

Anyone can join, and the Society offers a wide array of events and programs for young scholars, stargazers, Trekkies, and everyone else who wonders about the heavens and wants to know more. The three core enterprises, as identified on the Society’s website, are:

  • Explore Worlds
  • Find Life
  • Defend Earth

When asked about the third bullet, Dr. Betts assured us that the proposed defense is not theorized against man-made threats, meaning military enemies.

“Actually,” he says, “we’re talking about something much, much scarier. We’re talking about defending the earth from asteroids and comets—you know—the kind that killed the dinosaurs.”


And with equal aplomb concerning the second bullet, he reminds us that “life” doesn’t necessarily mean steely humanoids or rubbery ETs from low-budget, sci-fi Saturday afternoon screamers. Life, in this context, may mean microbes, bacteria, or something more akin to what lives on that aforementioned spoiled potato salad in the nether reaches of your fridge.

Back to that asteroid. Betts says, “It’s inevitable. It will happen again and again. In February 2013, the Chelyabinsk meteor took Russia by surprise. And it’s certain that there are more to come; we just can’t say when.” Betts explains that knowing in advance when an asteroid, comet or solar storm is approaching could give residents in its path a better chance of surviving and minimizing damage. How much extra time are we talking about? Dr. Betts estimates “…maybe an hour or so, maybe a couple of hours” before that heavenly body comes in like a wrecking ball.


The biggest advantage: “Knowing in advance would allow us to protect our satellite and power grids.”

Betts served as the program manager for an innovative study called LightSail 2, funded entirely by private donations, which explored the development of “CubeSats,” or small satellites that unfold in space like the silvery foil expando-pouch of Jiffy Pop on the front burner. The units carried no fuel but were instead propelled by the sun, collected with a shiny Mylar sail.

“It’s worth knowing that light, as in photons, exerts actual physical pressure upon us and upon other objects. There is this constant pushing going on, of photons pushing on us, and so the LightSail concept utilizes this knowledge to theoretically design spacecraft that are powered by an energy source that will be around for the next five billion years or so; that energy source being the sun.” He adds that the lightweight LightSail units can piggyback aboard larger, heavier, more conventional launches.

The obsession with space and space travel seems to come and go in waves, but the allure persists. Case in point: composer Patrick Harlin wrote his “Earthrise,” recently performed by The Pasadena Symphony after he was denied a seat on a crewed SpaceX flight.

“We’ve only just scratched the surface of what there is to know about the galaxies,” says Betts. “I love the fact that people get excited about the eclipse. This kind of thing keeps curiosity alive and rewards imagination,” says Betts.

Although space may not really be the final frontier (we think cellulite deserves that title), the mystery begins to expand into surprising new forms, like the wet wings of an emerging butterfly or the precisely folded sail of LightSail 2.

Dr. Betts says, “If you don’t look, you don’t know.”

The Planetary Society
60 Los Robles Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 793-5100

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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