The Grackle

Observations, Reflections and Miscellany from the Wacoan

The Day that Waco Looked Up

NASA experts encourage Wacoans to look to the stars

2 weeks ago

Pictured: Dr. Mark Clampin and Dr. Lori Glaze. Photos by Josh McSwain, Emily Ober, and provided by WACOAN readers

By Emily Ober

On April 8, 2024, Waco experienced a once-in-a-lifetime event. A total solar eclipsed passed right over our city, giving us four minutes and thirteen seconds of dusk-like skies while the moon fully covered the sun and granted us a spectacular view that most people will never experience.

When news of a total eclipse coming to Waco broke out, it brought droves of people excited to witness the stellar show. From amateur astronomers to directors from NASA, visitors flocked to Waco despite the apprehension of cloudy weather and Waco did not disappoint.

Two of NASA’s directors were among the crowd. While here, they shared with curious minds the importance of eclipses not only for our planet but in how we discover other planets in our vast universe.

Dr. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division, and Astrophysics Division Director Dr. Mark Clampin are no strangers to total solar eclipses. Even though they spend their days studying astronomical wonders, that Monday was not just another day for them.

“This will be my fourth [eclipse] and they’re all really big events,” said Dr. Clampin. “They’re all exciting in their own way. They’re different experiences. I’ve been to eclipses in very large cities, and some of the things you’ve heard about when you get to totality and people say, ‘You start to hear animals,’ in the middle of Shanghai, you don’t hear that.”

Dr. Glaze experienced her second total eclipse in Waco. After witnessing the last total eclipse in the United States from South Carolina in 2017, she immediately marked 2024 on her calendar and called her family to make sure she had her visit booked.

“I can just tell you,” Dr. Glaze said, “even for folks like us that are working in science all the time, the experience of feeling the change in the light around us and being around other people when you experience that, there’s just nothing like it.”

And there really was nothing like it. We collectively gazed upward with our certified solar viewers, watching as the moon slowly overtook the sun, poised in the precise position to completely cover the sun and create an aura. It offered a rare glimpse of the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere. It wasn’t quite dawn; it wasn’t quite dusk. It was something else.

NASA took advantage of our solar event to bring awareness and scientific knowledge to Wacoans.

When choosing a ‘base’ location for the 2024 total solar eclipse, according to Dr. Clampin it was a question of “Where are the big hubs along the route of totality where we can have a presence and talk to people about how important the eclipse is and trying to make that connection with the general public?” With Waco’s size and resources, it just made sense. The city partnered with Baylor University and the Discovery Channel to make sure that as many people could participate and learn about this event as possible.

Dr. Clampin and Dr. Glaze spoke at the STEAMclipse event which discussed the importance of solar eclipses in how we understand not only our planet, but our Solar System and universe. As the Astrophysics Division Director for NASA, Dr. Clampin’s role is to discover what is beyond our Solar System and solar eclipses offer unparallel techniques for studying exoplanets (planets outside of our Solar System). He is part of the James Webb Telescope team which launched at the end of 2021 and has provided us with groundbreaking images of our universe.

“We use this technique to discover exoplanets around other stars which I call ‘mini eclipses,’” Dr. Clampin explained. “You actually look for a little dip in the light from the star as the planet goes across the face of the star.”

While Dr. Clampin looks beyond, Dr. Glaze keeps her focus in our eight-planet system.

“We look at everything in the Solar System — except the Sun and the Earth — but anything else in the Solar System is part of my program. In my group, we’re the ones that build the spacecraft and the robotic missions that explore in the Solar System. Many people have heard of Perseverance rover which is on Mars, the double asteroid redirection test — the DART mission that purposely ran into an asteroid in 2022. That’s part of our program called planetary defense.”

On one of those missions, Dr. Glaze’s team was able to use an ‘eclipse’ to study the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, by positioning the craft on the opposite side of the moon. As sunlight filtered through the atmosphere, the instruments were able to pick up the composition of the gases.

These discoveries propel us forward in ways beyond the science of the stars. They drive forward innovation and technology and help us understand our own planet. Eclipses have revealed the way the sun reacts with our atmosphere and also provided insight to long-term research about the solar cycle. This information is integral to the preservation and the future of the planet we call home.

Even amateur stargazers can have an impact on our stellar discoveries. The first evidence of exoplanets came from one such stargazer.

“One of the things I always tell people is the very first confirmation of [a ‘mini eclipse’] was done by somebody in a car park in Colorado with a little small celestial telescope and they were able to see this big Jupiter-size planet goes across the face of its star,” Dr. Clampin explained. “Even as amateurs, you can do some interesting things.”

Though Waco has higher than average light pollution that affects our view of the sky, I can stargaze from my own backyard, especially in the winter nights. I can see several of the major constellations and the planets and I find myself in awe of the skies we have above our city. I have lived in Los Angeles and London and the thing I missed the most were the starry night skies of Waco.

NASA brought their presence to Waco to further encourage people to keep looking to the stars. Dr. Glaze urges Wacoans to check out all the exciting upcoming lunar missions that NASA is preparing to launch, including sending people back to the moon.

“Don’t forget that the moon is a big part of this solar eclipse. You can’t have a solar eclipse without the moon, and we have so much cool moon stuff going on in NASA right now.”

And for serious stargazing, Wacoans don’t have to travel far. The McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis is an eight-hour drive away that makes for a great weekend trip to get away from the city and see the starlight.

But there was something that Lori said that made me realize just why a solar eclipse is special — it’s witnessing it with other people which I think was what made the eclipse an event worth remembering. And judging by all the photos sent in, it seems Wacoans throughout the city took the opportunity to stop for four minutes and just look up.

Just as Dr. Glaze had done, my uncle called us the second after he experienced the 2017 eclipse in Oregon and said he was coming to Waco in 2024. Even as the threat of a cloudy day loomed, I had a house full of family, drawn by the prospects of a once-in-a-lifetime view. We held out, setting up the telescope to get the best vantage of the show, but we knew that even if the clouds didn’t part, we had made fond memories. My uncle finally got to see a Buc-ee’s in person, we experienced the magic of the Waco Symphony Orchestra that took us on an interstellar journey and my stellar-loving cousin and uncle got to meet actual directors from NASA. If there was no eclipse, we had gathered on the patio, enjoying local brews and whiskies from Waco establishments, we had grilled burgers and we had bonded. That was even more magical than the perfect placement of the earth, moon and sun to create this spectacular astronomical phenomenon.