Waco Chat

Dr. Mark Clampin & Dr. Lori Glaze

By Kevin Tankersley

Division Directors at NASA

“We’re all here together watching this amazing thing.”

NASA had a strong presence in Waco for last month’s total solar eclipse. Dr. Mark Clampin and Dr. Lori Glaze took part in the STEAMclipse Festival, sponsored by ESC Region 12 and the City of Waco, at the Waco Convention Center two days prior to the eclipse.

What’s so cool about an eclipse?

Glaze: It’s just such a unique astronomical event. They don’t happen that often. The last time we had one across the U.S. was 2017. The next one that we can see from the United States won’t be until 2044, so it’s a relatively rare thing that we can experience and be a part of this kind of cosmic activity. And then just to be on the ground as it happens. It’s an unusual experience as the sky darkens. It’s kind of an eerie kind of darkness because it’s not something we’re used to. It’s a little different than sunrise or sunset. The animals don’t really quite know what to do. You may hear crickets and frogs. The nighttime animals start to wake up and get interested. And I love the experience you get around other people, as we all sit there and go, ‘Wow, we’re all here together watching this amazing thing.’

Clampin: One of the things that’s really important about these eclipses is it’s an opportunity for the public to share in the scientific excitement of an event like this. From a scientific perspective, we can see the region immediately around the sun — the corona — which is very hard to do otherwise with instruments. We get a view of very close into the sun that we don’t get unless we actually send spacecraft there. We actually have one called the Parker Solar Probe, which is going to be on its closest approach later this year. It’s a way for the public to really engage with the scientific assignment of this event and learn a bit more about not only the sun but also the Earth and how all we do science and how we think about some of these problems.

What can we learn from an eclipse?

Clampin: I’m the director of astrophysics, so we generally deal with the rest of the universe and not what’s in our solar system. But over the last decade-and-a-half, the technique of eclipses has become very important for discovering planets around other stars. So, when we have the eclipse, as the moon passes in front of the sun, it goes pretty dark. But it became apparent to astronomers about 15 years ago that you could actually discover planets around other stars, because as the planet passes across the face of the star, you see a dip in the amount of light coming from the star. A Jupiter-like planet will cause a 1% change in the light coming from a star. So that technique, which is what I call mini-eclipse, is how we’ve discovered something like 5,000 planets around other stars outside of our own solar system, and another 10,000 that we haven’t confirmed yet, that still have to be followed up. It’s become just a fundamental part of how we study planets outside our own solar system.

Glaze: My background is in planetary science, so I study all the planets in our own solar system. We have observations where, for example with Titan, which is a moon of Saturn, we can look at that with the sun behind. So, then we’re looking at an eclipse between our spacecraft, Titan and the sun. When we do that, the light can shine through Titan’s atmosphere. It has a very dense atmosphere, more dense than Earth’s — four times more dense — made of ethane and methane, not nitrogen and oxygen like ours. And we’re able to then learn about the chemistry of their atmosphere by looking as the light shines through that atmosphere. That’s some of the things that we can do just even in our own solar system.

Dr. Mark Clampin (left) is the astrophysics division director in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. He graduated from the University of London with a degree in physics and earned his Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. He’s worked with the James Webb Space Telescope for 20 years. Dr. Lori Glaze (right) is the director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division. A Texas native, she graduated with two degrees in physics from the University of Texas-Arlington, and with her Ph.D. in environmental science from Lancaster University in England. Glaze is leading a mission to land an octocopter drone — “It’s the size of a small car, and has eight rotors,” she said — on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, about 746 million miles from Earth. She is married to Terry Glaze, one of the founding members of the heavy metal band Pantera.