Planetary Radio • Nov 01, 2023

Psyche and Eclipse Company blast off

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Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Foundation and Regents Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU

Jesse tomlinson profile

Jesse Tomlinson

Co-founder of The Eclipse Company

Stephen watkins profile

Stephen Watkins

Co-founder of The Eclipse Company

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

Sarah al ahmed headshot

Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

On October 13, 2023, NASA's Psyche mission's principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, watched her team's spacecraft blast off on its voyage to explore a metallic asteroid. She joins Planetary Radio this week for an emotional retelling of that day. Then Jesse Tomlinson and Stephen Watkins from The Eclipse Company tell us about their partnership with The Planetary Society and the launch of their new eclipse map for the upcoming 2024 total solar eclipse in North America. Stick around for What's Up with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society, as we muse about the space moments that spark wonder.

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Psyche launches
Psyche launches A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying NASA's Psyche spacecraft lifts off on Oct. 13, 2023.Image: SpaceX
2017 Total Solar Eclipse
2017 Total Solar Eclipse The total solar eclipse on 21 August 2017 captured the attention of millions as it passed across the United States. This image of the eclipse during totality, taken in Douglas, Wyoming, captures our star's streaming corona in stunning detail. Total solar eclipses provide a unique opportunity to study our Sun's atmosphere without the use of space-based coronagraphs.Image: Blake Estes


Sarah Al-Ahmed: From the launch of a mission to a new eclipse map, this week on Planetary Radio. I'm Sarah Al-Ahmed of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our Solar System and beyond. After decades of work, the Psyche mission's principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton got to watch her team spacecraft blast off on its voyage to explore a metallic asteroid. She joins us this week for an emotional retelling of that day in October 2023. Then Jesse Tomlinson and Stephen Watkins from The Eclipse Company tell us about their partnership with The Planetary Society and the launch of their new eclipse map for the upcoming 2024 total solar eclipse in North America. We'll close out with what's up with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society. Bruce and I are going to muse a little bit about the space moments that we think spark the most wonder. If you love Planetary Radio and want to stay informed about the latest space discoveries, make sure you hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcasting platform. By subscribing, you'll never miss an episode filled with new and awe-inspiring ways to know the cosmos and your place within it. If you've been a fan of Planetary Radio for a while, you'll probably remember our next guest, Lindy Elkins-Tanton. She's a foundation and regents professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. She's also the principal investigator for NASA's Psyche Mission, which launched on October 13th, 2023. Lindy has shared so much of herself with us over the years, not just detailing the Psyche mission, but about her own life. Her conversation with Planetary Radio's previous host, Matt Kaplan about her book, which is called A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman makes me emotional every time I hear it. But today she's back for a very special reason. After years of tireless effort and passion from her and her team, NASA's Psyche mission is finally in space. It's on its way to explore the metallic asteroid, also called Psyche, which might just be the exposed core of a protoplanet from the early Solar System. But for Lindy, it's the culmination of so much more. It's the realization of a dream hard won through perseverance and teamwork. Hey, Lindy.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Hey, good to see you.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Good to see you again, and thanks for coming back on the show.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Thanks. I really appreciate it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. The last time we talked, I remember saying near the end, after this launch, I wanted to invite you back on because what a moment. You've been working on this for so many years.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Oh my gosh.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How does it feel to finally have your spacecraft out into space?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Beginning to feel like it's a new normal. I had a countdown clock running on my desktop and now it's a count-up clock because it did work that way. I'm beginning to feel like I'm catching up on sleep a bit. The spacecraft is just performing so well and we had such a rollercoaster of challenges to overcome, including at the last minute before launch. And so this feels like some surreal new kind of world.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What happened on launch day that made that so complicated?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Launch day itself was the most perfect and beautiful launch day ever. But two weeks before launch, we discovered we had a problem with our cold gas thrusters that they were going to overheat. And this was just a couple of geniuses who I'm indebted to forever at JPL who just thought, "I don't feel totally comfortable with this. Let's look into it." And it turned out we had been given the wrong data, which we based all of our operations on for years. And when they took their own data, it was a different story. So suddenly, and this was the day I arrived in Florida, thinking I had let my guard down, which is always a mistake. I'd always be like, "Okay. We're just going to coast into launch. It's going to be a series of parties and this amazing experience." And then suddenly it was just like red alert because this could be mission ending. If they overheated, we would no longer be able to turn our spacecraft and we probably would never have known what failed on the thrusters.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What a nightmare.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: A nightmare. So suddenly 100, 150 people, all hands on deck, every kind of alarm blaring you could imagine. 2:00 AM, I'm on WebEx calls with 70 people, and I've just never... Honest to God, this was a masterclass in how teams work best because it just could not have been handled better. And found a solution, and we did have to move the launch seven days. Incredible. It really solved it. And that was amazing. And then we thought, "Great. Okay. We're going to launch on the 12th." And we get on the weather call. By we, I mean, Henry Stone, the project manager and Ben Weiss, the deputy PI and myself standing outside under the ease of this building where we're having our team party. We had to go outside to take this call. The heavens open, its pouring rain, and we're listening on the call and it's the super expert weather person from the Space Force side saying, "It's not looking good for the 12th. We are expecting tornadoes." And we're like, "Of course."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Of course.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: "Of course we're expecting tornadoes. Of course we are." Actually Ben Weiss and I just started cracking up because it just could not have been more perfect. So we were just faded from the beginning to launch on Friday the 13th and that day was the most perfect launch day ever. So you could imagine the exhaustion and clarity we were entering into that launch day with.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I hope you still got to have some of your parties though.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: We hated the parties anyway because you can't really reorganize. You have whatever, 5 or 600 people coming and it's just... You're going to have the party anyway, so it's like a pre-launch party. So on launch morning, I got up really early because I got to sit on console. And the console that I got to sit on, there were 10 different rooms of people doing operations for the spacecraft. A bunch of them were at Kennedy Space Center, and then there's the big operations room at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and we're all on headsets listening to the voice net and we're all watching the consoles. So my console was in Hanger AE on the Space Force side. So I get up long before dawn. It's totally pitch black and come up to the gate to go into the Space Force side. I've got my badge and I'm ready to go in. There were so many people coming on for launch that they had actually opened two lanes so that we could get onto the base, and they're checking all the badges. And then the base and Kennedy are both just miles and miles of Swampy Florida wilderness jungle interspersed with occasional gigantic launch complexes. There's no streetlights. Driving up this two lane road in the absolute pitch dark and then there's a little lighted sign by the side of the road that just says, "Go Psyche." There were these wonderful moments. It was a big, big deal. So many people making this happen. And then, I don't know, 10 or 11,000 people came to see the launch as well. So sitting in that console at Hanger AE and listening to the countdown, following it in my launch book, and that was just an amazing experience.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's going to be so cool to see the people locally cheering for your mission. Because I got that sense. I've only been to one launch or rather attempted launch at Kennedy Space Center, but just seeing all of the shop windows with their signs for the missions and all the people showing up, there's something really cool about the community around that space center.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: I love that. We have so much support for this mission from around the world too. That was just a thrill to know that so many people were participating. And this is a big deal launch for SpaceX because it's their first NASA Deep Space mission launch and just the eighth Falcon Heavy. So they really wanted it to go well, and we had great working relationship with SpaceX. So all these teams from different organizations came together into one. And the countdown is going so smoothly, and the big higher ups from NASA who were in the room with me were like, "This feels good. This is going to happen. And we're going through the book." For a while there's just periods of silence because there's actually no problems and nothing to work, and everything is working. And then at 10 minutes before launch after doing the countdown now for hours, suddenly there's a problem. I wasn't sure. I knew it wasn't good, but I didn't know how bad it was. So I turned to one of the JPL leadership who was sitting to my left and he just swore, which he never does. And then I thought, "Oh my gosh." And so we all had collective like 500 people had a heart attack for two minutes until it was resolved at launch minus eight minutes. And then it proceeded.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What a roller coaster.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Oh my gosh. Right. I mean, it was good to just be afraid for a minute because things were going very smoothly. And then the rocket worked perfectly. As soon as it was launched, we all ran out of the building and just watched it with our eyes. We looked up in the sky and we saw the rocket. We watched the boosters separate and then we watched them land, and they're very close to us over there at Hanger AE. The sonic booms and the rumbling crackling sonic booms that are just... I love that. People get excited about Formula One race cars, but let me tell you, go to a Falcon Heavy launch-

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'd love to.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: ... and then there's no going back. It is just amazing. And then had to figure out how to drive myself over to the press center because I and some of the JPL management and our project manager, our deputy principal investigator, all these people were like 10 of us are supposed to meet at this conference room in the press center because they don't want us to meet any press until we've reached mission success, which is that we've got telemetry and we're locked on, and the solar panels are power positive and we're thermally stable. These are a bunch of things that are... We don't even separate from the rocket till 62 minutes after launch, and it could be even another two hours before those things are accomplished. So we don't want any confusing partial messages. So I did figure out how to drive over there through the 500 cars that were leaving from all the people watching on the console and stuff. But it was very well done and I just took out my cell phone and hit record for one of these voice memos and just poured out everything that I was feeling at that moment, which I haven't listened to again yet. I don't know what I said, so that'll be interesting.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's a beautiful thing to record and keep. You'll get to reflect on that moment in the future. And our listeners have been on this journey with you for literally years. Not just about the Psyche mission, but about your personal life, your personal journey, everything you've overcome. So seeing you in this moment and knowing that you have that record, I feel like that that's so special and you're going to have to listen to it at some point.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: No, I am. I've been also keeping a notebook because I knew I wouldn't remember all the incredible things that happened during the super intense insane month that I was living in Florida. My husband moved down with me. He's like, "No, you're going to need me to grocery shop. This is going to be great." And so we supported each other. We were each having work stuff going on, and we had a little Airbnb with a pond behind it. We kayaked through the mangroves. I mean, it was just so many things. I wrote like 70 pages of all of these experiences because I do. I feel that. Also, I wrote about in my memoir, there was a moment right during step one where I had cancer and I had to go through chemotherapy. I had a huge amount of nerve damage and for a while I was even having trouble walking. I had huge muscle spasms and body not working. So now not only has my rocket launched, which is amazing, but in the past year, I've actually totally regained my health. And so I now am pain-free and I can jog. It's amazing. So it's like this stellar moment. I just turned 58, which I freaking can't believe, but I'm like, "This is a really good moment, so I can't forget about it."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: This seems like a book all on its own.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: I feel like it could be. I don't know. It's an intense emotional experience. That's dor sure. So we show up at the press center and we had to sneak around the back and come in the secret door so we could end up in this closed conference room and not run into all the press in the front. So we're all in there and a couple of the guys have hooked into the Psyche ops and they're getting the data down and they're like, "Wait. We're power positive." We're like, "Wait a minute." First, we all watched the separation on the screen and everybody could see that. It was broadcast via SpaceX's onboard cameras to everybody in the world and you can watch it on the replay of the launch commentary. And we'd ask them to give us no angular momentum, no spin at tip off. We wanted the spacecraft to be going absolutely straight with no spin so that we could right away get down to opening the solar arrays. We all watched and we're like, our heads are tipping like, "Is it spinning? Is it rotating?" But it wasn't. It was just perfect. It just soared away. We knew there was some chances that the low-gain antennas would get picked up by the Deep Space Network and suddenly we're like, "Oh my gosh, that was a little bit of telemetry. Wait a minute, what are we getting?" And then the solar array is deployed. We're getting power. The space crest detumbles. It uses those cold gas thrusters. It all works. The cold gas thrusters are not overheating. We couldn't even believe it. They were so cool and perfect. And so then the head of the press group, this wonderful woman from JPL, she's used to there being contingencies like anomalies and issues after launch. And she didn't want us to have to be solving them while hangry after being on console for like five, six hours. So she went out to get us sandwiches thinking it was going to be hours more. And while she was gone, we hit all of the things needed for mission success. And so we locked on, we had telemetry. The spacecraft was healthy. It was thermally stable. It was power positive. She came back with sandwiches and we're like, "Yay."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Victory sandwich.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: We couldn't even believe. We kept looking at each other and going, "Pinch me. I can't believe how well this is going." And then we took a million loopy pictures. And that was launch day. It was amazing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It really sounds like the team came together and really heroed up and totally, totally nailed it. That's amazing.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: I really feel that way. Now 15 days out, there are little things that we're working, which is so expected and nothing that's very worrying. And all the major processes that we've been planning to do so far, initial checkout have worked beautifully. And so in spacecraft speak, as you know when everything is working perfectly, it's called nominal, which just I still don't understand where that comes from. Maybe you do because it makes no...

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I don't know where that started. I do love making nominal jokes around the house though.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: We do that all the time too. "How are you today, James?" "I'm nominal." That meaning perfect. Absolutely perfect. And so the next day after launch, we reached that coveted state of sys nominal, systems nominal, and it's just been great. So today, in fact, as we're talking, we're switching from the low-gain to the high-gain antenna. We're finally far enough away that amount of energy won't damage either the spacecraft or the deep space network because apparently that would happen if we turned on the high-gain antenna closer to earth, which is also fascinating to me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That is fascinating.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: So we are right in the middle of turning the spacecraft for that when I came to talk to you. So soon we'll have six times the data rate, which is great.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's really cool. What do the next years look like for your team? Because it won't actually reach asteroid Psyche until 2029, so you have a little bit of time here to sit around and ponder life.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Oh my gosh, yes. I'm super looking forward to that because ever since really... I mean there've been challenges before that, but it was really the advent of COVID basically almost four years ago that we started into crisis mode. It's basically been continuous crisis mode for this team for the last three and three quarter years, which is a long time to be living in that state. So we're all looking forward to some return to normalcy. We've got about 100 days of initial checkout all scheduled. We're doing operations Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so that Tuesday and Thursday we can do data analysis and clean up stuff and not be pushed too hard. Deep space optical comms is going to start having its opportunities and we just opened its cover last week, and so we're ready to do the initial checkout for that instrument next week. So that's going to be great for the team. And then the Mars flyby, and we'll be doing a lot of science planning. But I think a very much more human rate of work for the next number of years. I did just set up a software countdown clock to Psyche arrival. We don't know exactly the day that we'll be going into orbit because it depends on a lot of things with electro propulsion, but give or take 2,100 days to go.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: The countdown begins all over again. I'm just channeling Battlestar Galactica in my brain. Less stressful.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Exactly. Yes, but in a good way. Yep.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's beautiful. Are we going to actually get images from the spacecraft during the Mars flyby?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: We are going to be calibrating all the instruments, but it's going to be pretty distant flyby, so it's not clear how exciting that's going to be. We had at one point hope to get a look back at the earth in the moon, but honestly, we screamed away from the earth in the moon so fast. By the time we could have turned on the cameras and turned around, you couldn't see anything.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's almost like those Falcon Heavy Rockets really got some launch to them.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: No kidding. Wow. Yeah. A lot of C3 just full on us out there because we haven't not turned on our propulsive thrusters yet and we won't until after the initial checkout. And we'll be testing them and stuff. So this is all just fleeing from the rocket.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So while people are kind of in this moment, it's going to be a few years before the mission gets there. How can the public still keep engaged with this mission, get updates or interact with it? Because I know there's been so many wonderful interaction moments, the Psyche inspired program. What can people get into nowadays?

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Yeah. Well, there's going to be Psyche inspired the whole time, so look for new student art coming absolutely all the time. I just looked at the plans for the next class of artists for their first artwork, and so all of that will appear on our website. And then there are some great sites to keep up with things. There's one that shows where Psyche is right now and how many light seconds one-way communications is and stuff like that. I've been posting them on my X feed. I still am not used to calling it that my Twitter feed. I guess we need to put some of those links up on our ASU website as well. There's a NASA website. So there's lots of ways to keep up and we'll be going back. We had a little bit of a hiatus just because people had so much work to do, but we want to go back to having team members write little blogs about what they're doing and their personal experience. So I hope there'll be lots of ways for people to stay connected.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm so happy for you and your team. You've totally done it. This mission is on the way and now you get to have some much needed rest. So I hope you all have a lot of chill downtime. Look up in the sky at night, see the stars and think, "My spacecraft is out there. We did it."

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Oh, it's unbelievable to see that and think that. Jim Bell said it really well, "Like a wild animal, we've released it into its native habitat. Now it's really happy. It's doing everything right."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's beautiful.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: I thought so too.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks for joining me, Lindy, and for taking the time. I know you're super busy. I hope you get back to all your adventures at JPL and the high-gain antenna, everything goes well.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: Thanks for your interest and support, and the chance to talk about that crazy launch day.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks, Lindy. I'm so happy that I get to share that conversation with you. I've been looking forward to that for quite a while, but it's also a great reminder that every time you support a space mission, you're bolstering the dreams of thousands of people around the world and you really never know whose life you might touch. We turn from that moment of awe to another, the upcoming total solar eclipse on April 8th, 2024. It's going to pass over Mexico with the United States of America and Canada. If you never experienced a total solar eclipse before, I urge you to do so in the strongest way possible. I really can't express to you what it's like. You just have to experience it for yourself. It's a moment that could change your life, which I think our next guest would agree with. Stephen Watkins and Jesse Tomlinson are the founders of The Eclipse Company. By trade, they're software engineers, but they had a moment of awe when they experienced the total solar eclipse that passed over their hometown on August 21st, 2017, and it set them on a journey to share the next big American eclipse with as many people as possible. They teamed up with The Planetary Society to create a beautiful user-friendly eclipse map with all kinds of fun science details. It's designed to help the public locate an optimal viewing spot for the upcoming eclipse. This will be the last total solar eclipse to pass over the United States for the next 20 years. So this is going to be a moment. Thanks for joining me, Jesse and Steve.

Stephen Watkins: Yeah. Glad to be here. Thanks for inviting us.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And thanks for collaborating with us on this really cool eclipse map. I cannot tell you how useful this would've been for me at points in my past, so I'm really glad it exists. Why did you feel it was so important to create this eclipse map?

Jesse Tomlinson: I think in 2017 we had the, I guess, fortune to live in the path of totality for that solar eclipse that happened. We both were living in Greenville, South Carolina, and that city happened to be in the path. It was such a life-changing experience for me and such a great moment. I think about what led up to that, that let me experience that, and I feel like I got lucky as far as knowing it and just understanding the significance and being ready for it and also just the weather. We got lucky with the weather, but there's something about all the people that I talked to afterwards that I said, "Did you see the eclipse?" And they said, "Yes." But they were talking about a very different experience than I had. There was just clearly still a huge gap in the understanding for the public of what a total eclipse was and how that was very different from a partial eclipse. So really wanted to do something to help really just raise more awareness and help people be more prepared to get the most out of the eclipse that was coming here in '24.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Did you want to add anything, Steve?

Stephen Watkins: I totally agree with Jesse. Again, I was in South Carolina as well and got to experience totality for the first time, and it was a special moment, really powerful. I didn't even fully understand what I was getting into at the time like I think a lot of other people. I knew that in 2024 there's going to be another total eclipse and I wanted to create a tool to help prepare people for the next one to try to raise awareness and empower planning to help people understand where the path is and help remove obstacles toward getting people into that path.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's funny because I've dedicated my entire life to learning about space and sharing it with other people, but I had a similar experience in that it wasn't until I was there staring up at the total solar eclipse in 2017 that I really understood what it was. It felt like no amount of people telling you how cool this thing is, really expresses how cool it is. It's absolutely bonkers.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah. I tell people it's the one thing that really lives up to the hype. So many things in our world today are just so over exaggerated. People talking about the coffee shop they just went to was life-changing or just everything is just so over the top as far as our language goes, but when people talk about totality or total solar eclipses, they use that language and I think a lot of times it just blends in with everything else that's happening online and in our language today. So it's hard, but it does. It lives up to the hype.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I love that on your website you brought up the overview effect, which is that feeling that astronauts feel that profound feeling of connection that they get when they look down at the Earth from space. We are probably not going to go to space, us personally, but I think watching a total solar eclipse is about as close as I can get. How did the eclipse make you guys feel?

Jesse Tomlinson: It's honestly one of the best days of my life that I remember. I had such a great group of people around me and my family was with me. We were in our backyard in South Carolina and just had a bunch of friends over. It's hard to explain it, but everyone had such a different reaction to it. I have a video from one of my friends that you can just hear the audio. It's not a good video, but the audio is really crazy. You just hear people screaming. Some people are just speechless. I was really just more overwhelmed. I wasn't screaming. I was just like... I don't know how to explain it, but it just overwhelmed me and just taking it all in because it's not just what you see up in the sky. It's like all around you. Just there's things happening on the ground and on the sky to the sides and how you feel the temperature and all these various things. It's just too much almost happening at the same time. And yeah, I think I was more just overwhelmed by it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Relatable.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How about you, Steve?

Stephen Watkins: Yeah, I agree. I think overwhelmed is a good word for it. There's actually a TED Talk done by David Baron who I think does a great job of putting to words some of these complex emotions that you feel when in a total eclipse. It's just a powerful moment. It's difficult to describe, yes. Yeah, it's true. It can make you feel just a new level of connection with the universe and kind of insignificant, kind of humbling in a way like dissolving the ego and just that profound sense of connection I think is a very powerful thing that we don't necessarily get all the time in life.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: For me, it was this weird moment of just looking up at the moon and realizing that's a whole rock hanging over my head. It's not just a beautiful shiny object. I sometimes look at night the physicality of its presence blocking out the sun was just absolutely startling.

Jesse Tomlinson: We were just in Texas, Uvalde County to see the annular solar eclipse, and at this viewing event we were at, there was a local university researcher who was doing this thing called Project Awe with these portable EEG machines, I think they are that measure your brainwaves. He asked for volunteers and I volunteered. And basically during the annular eclipse, during that ring of fire moment, he was trying to see if different things happen on your brainwaves and different scans. They're trying to measure awe, and it's such an interesting project to try to figure that out. It was like what is happening in our mind when we experience awe? And that's just something Steve and I have talked a lot about over the past year about with what we're doing with this eclipse thing is trying to connect people to these moments of awe because you mentioned the overview effect and how that can make us feel more connected during the total eclipse is such a strong one. But there are other ones, and I mean I think they're all important. There's all these different moments of awe that we can experience on Earth. I think they're important for humanity to get out there and find them.

Stephen Watkins: Yeah. It seems like we live in a more.... I guess a society that tends to be more individualistic a lot of times. A lot of times you lose that, I think this sense of collectivism, this sense of connection. I think these moments, these natural moments are a great reminder for humanity to like, "We're in this together." There's a unifying important aspect I think to this. So I think it's more than just a specific moment of time, I think it's an important thing for humanity to look up and reflect and have that collective moment.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And eclipses are a great way to do that because all you got to do is get to that path of totality, but therein lies the complexity. I had a situation during the 2017 eclipse where I had been planning to drive to Oregon, but luckily they were having wildfires and the smoke made it impossible for me to go to my location to actually see that event. So two days before the eclipse, I rented a car, packed all my friends in my car and drove to a completely different state. And just planning that was so complex that I think if I had a tool like your Eclipse map that would've made it so much easier. So how can people use this map to select their viewing location for the upcoming eclipse in 2024?

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah. It can really get overwhelming quickly once you'd make that decision. You hear the hype and you were like, "Yeah, I want to see this." I mean, trouble planning in general can be stressful. It is for me at least. This just has all these extra layers of complexity than a normal trip. You have to be in a certain location at a specific six-minute, five minutes to make it all worth it. And so yeah, it's stressful. What we're trying to do is be very practical with the information that we show, but also try to make it really simple as far as an approachableness to the product. Because there's so much science behind this that can just be another wave of overwhelmingness for a user. So we approach it more from a travel aspect actually. And looking at the map, you start to first see generally where you want to observe from. So we try to layer in some subtle cloud cover data. So again, like you were saying with the clouds in Oregon or the smoke in that case, we try to... That's going to be a big factor in April is cloud cover. That's a pretty stormy time of year in North America and the clouds can really be a factor. So a lot of people are trying to plan general region for Texas and Mexico for being the least risky areas. Any area really can be clear on that day, but there's just historically better areas. So we try to highlight that in a approachable way. After that, then it's more about the specifics. Once you say, "I want to go to Texas," then now it becomes more about the actual town you're going to stay in. So we try to highlight... The first thing maybe is more exactly where in the path. So the closer you get to the middle, that center of the path, the higher your totality time will be. We try to highlight that time and try to get someone to maybe pick one of those cities that's on the center line as being the best. And then we bring out events and parks and other points of interest that might be things that people are wanting to go see around that area. And so that's going to get them a better sense of more of the specific area that they want to look at. We try to help with lodging too because that's going to become the next big problem is finding lodging. We work with our lodging partner to try to help surface some availability around that area and try to help with lodging. It's trying to bring together all the different concerns that you would need to think about when you're planning a trip. I think maybe my favorite part of the whole thing is really showing the phenomena that you get to see at any given location. There are a lot if you get into the path. I think we have 15 on there listed. So being able to highlight those in the path and the phenomena that you can see even outside the path.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back after the short break.

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Sarah Al-Ahmed: There are many apps and maps online that'll allow you to look up where you can go see the eclipse, but I think all these additional elements, allowing you to find out what local events are going on, whether or not there's a park nearby, what lodging really takes us to the next level because particularly how are you supposed to find the event that you want to go to? That's a really hard thing and I'm wondering if people know of an event that's going on that they want to put up on your map. Is it possible for them to contact you to get that on there?

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, on our website, we have a form that you can fill out to get your event on there. There's a lot of websites out there already, communities doing some cool stuff already have their websites up. We're adding more and more to the site every day, and really these communities are doing so much. They've been planning for over a year. Honestly, a lot of these communities have been to get ready for all the tourism that's coming. So they're doing great stuff and they're doing a lot of planning, and we want to really just highlight that and have all the visitors that are coming to our site be able to connect with those communities. They're bringing into their community, they're setting up new areas for lodging that don't exist on any map right now. They're creating new parking lots that don't exist, and it's just really cool to see that these communities are really just going all out to try to get as many people into this as possible. So we're trying to highlight those communities that are doing great work, so we're adding more and more to the map every day.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It sounds like a lot of effort to keep that all updated. Are you guys also keeping the idea of weather on the day involved? Will your weather patterns be changing on the map in real time? That seems complex.

Stephen Watkins: Yeah, that's the plan is to make it more real time as the day approaches. Right now, it's obviously looking at historical cloud cover information, but we'd love to switch that to actually forecasted models as the day approaches.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, you had a little bit of a test with the annular eclipse that happened just recently here in the Americas. How did that day go for you as a first kind of testing ground for this map?

Jesse Tomlinson: I think it went better than I expected. I was telling the guy running this Project Awe thing, I was wearing the EEG thing, that any of the spikes that he saw on mine for being really excited might have been because of how well some of our tests were going. We have the times of different events happening and down to the second, and they were spot on. I think we were expecting to have to adjust a lot of that from the calculations we were running. They were spot on, so I was excited about that. The weather in Texas for this annular event was actually more of the more risky side of the path. It was a lot better chances out in Nevada, Utah, Arizona areas. We knew that there was risk and there were clouds that day, and we were a little bit worried that we weren't going to see anything, but it was actually just the right amount of cloud level that we could see through the clouds. The clouds acted like this natural filter where if we had the glasses on, we couldn't see anything but with them off, we could actually see, and I know that goes against all the safety warnings. But my eyes are still good. So it was actually amazing to see it with your eyes, the ring of fire and a lot of the eclipse experts who were there were saying this was one of the best viewing events that we've ever seen because of that weird, perfect balance of clouds, which is a weird thing to say for an eclipse. But yeah, it was special. It was really cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Of course, we should take a moment to advocate for eclipse safety. Definitely wear your eclipse glasses out there, but there are these moments where the lighting conditions coming through the clouds are just the right way so that you can actually see that with your eyes. And I think that's part of why totality for a total solar eclipse is so magnificent because when you're actually in that moment of full totality, you can. You can take off your eclipse glasses and just look at it with your eyes, which is a really special moment. But you got to time it right. You don't want to burn your retina. So you're prepping for this. It's going to be a beautiful moment for all of us. Did you use your map to figure out where you're both going to be going for the next eclipse in April?

Jesse Tomlinson: Well, we are definitely planning to go to Eclipse-O-Rama hosted by The Planetary Society, so I don't know where else we would be.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm so glad. I'm going to be there too. So we'll high five in real time, but I think that's what's so special about it. Already people out there are creating these events. Our Eclipse-O-Rama event, I think is going to be really fun. But anywhere people get an opportunity to hang out together and witness this moment, I think, even if you're just in a field somewhere, especially if you're with other people, it makes it extra special.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah. We were on our way to that Uvalde area. We were in Garden State Park. We were driving, we actually drove through the hill countries there in Fredericksburg where Eclipse-O-Rama is happening. And that's the first time I had ever been out to that area, and it's so beautiful. I didn't know that Texas terrain was that diverse from the east to the central to the west. All very different. And that central Texas area is just so nice. We got to see the night sky just as dark as you can imagine. We could see the Milky Way galaxy with our eyes and it was incredible. So I'm looking forward to seeing that night sky again.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I feel like I'm really happy that we have modern day technology, but every time I think about light pollution and the fact that it's kind of robbed us of that night sky, it's definitely tragic for me. So it's a good moment to get out of the city, go find a good place to view this during the daytime, but also take a moment to look up at night because those stars will startle you.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yes. We actually spent a lot of time getting light pollution data onto our map. It's a little bit of a hidden feature, but if you flip from the clouds to the light pollution, you could see in that path to totality where the light pollution is because during totality, one of the phenomena that you can see planets and some stars. A lot of cities that you're in will have these automatic lights that come on when it gets dark. Believe it or not, light pollution can be a factor during totality, especially for photographers who really want to get a great shot during totality with planets in the background and stuff. That's a factor.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's a great thing to point out and to plan for because can you imagine setting everything up just right only to realize that your photo didn't turn out right because you had too much light pollution in your area. And those planets coming out during the daytime, during totality are absolutely spectacular. I had this little kid next to me during the 2017 eclipse who was just staring up there pointing out the planets and just screaming their names out. He was so excited to see them during the daytime. Of course we had a great timer going on to let us know how long we had during the eclipse so that we could take these moments to look at these other things. And you provide a good timer on your website that allows people to calculate exactly how long they have, which is really location dependent. That's a useful feature. How did you go from planning out making this eclipse map to collaborating with The Planetary Society? How did you guys connect with us?

Stephen Watkins: Yeah. So we happened to be at the same workshop. I believe it was Rochester, New York, that workshop and we were sharing the work that we were doing, the map, the tool, and we followed up, sent out an email asking for feedback essentially on the tool, on the map, how we can make it better, and The Planetary Society really liked it, really connected with our product. And from then on out, we just spurred a great partnership, great relationship.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's really cool to have another way to share the science of the eclipse in a way that isn't overwhelming because I really love the way it's integrated subtly into your map. Where can people find these little science tidbits that we've helped create?

Stephen Watkins: The science tidbits we have on our website on the learn section, if you go to TheEclipse.Company, there's a learned link, and we have various small snippets on our site that link out to greater content on The Planetary Society to learn about various aspects of the eclipse. It's a great resource for sure to learn more information about the eclipse.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah. Two of my favorites. There are phenomena checklists that we have per location. There's a great article that goes into detail on every single one of those. That was one of the things that helped me in 2017 was not understanding each thing to be ready for so that I could fully appreciate it. And I think that planning ahead of time really will pay off during the event. And the other one is that eclipse terminology to learn, because that is something most people do not know, the difference between totality, granularity, and all these very obscure terms that most people that are into this now is commonplace. But the Uber driver that I'm talking to and the person down the street, they don't know any of this stuff. It's really useful to just learn those terms.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah. It's almost embarrassing to me how long I went through life before anyone ever said the word, syzygy to me. And then having no idea what they were talking about. So these kinds of eclipse lists are definitely useful, and allowing people to recognize these phenomena that they're going to be seeing ahead of time will really help you plan for it because it might be a bit weird when you're standing under a tree during an annular solar eclipse and the pinhole projections through the leaves start making these weird things on the ground. There are so many strange little things that happen, like the sound of the animals just kind of disappearing or the drop in the temperature, or the way the wind kicks up after the temperature change after the eclipse. There's just so much going on there.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yes, eclipse wind. It's a weird thing. Do you know about the shadow bands?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I haven't seen them myself, but what a rare and weird phenomenon. Would you be willing to explain it?

Jesse Tomlinson: Shadow bands are the craziest one of all the phenomenon, I think. So they're not at every eclipse and they're not at every location at every eclipse, but to see them properly, you need some high contrast, a large white sheet, king size sheet or larger to be able to see it, but just maybe 30 seconds before totality starts and 30 seconds after you get these weird... You mentioned the shadows that happen through the tree leaves and the pinhole camera style thing. There's all sorts of weird shadow stuff that happens leading up to it. And this is kind of the culminating shadow moment, which they've just described them as snake-like shadows, and they're moving, and they're waving. I don't know. I guess the way I describe it is the way that shadows look on the bottom of a pool if you're swimming underwater where it's just weird, wavy light and shadow moving back and forth. And it intensifies as you get closer to totality and they get stronger and clearer leading up to it. And then after, I believe they rotate 90 degrees and they go the other way. It's a very weird, weird thing. There's stories about this happening long ago and children screaming because they were so scared of the shadow snakes and all this stuff. So it's a weird one. It sounds weird. It is weird. So try to see it.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's what was so weird about being there in that moment. It's like all of the stories that people have created through all of history trying to explain what was going on there completely made sense because even as a scientist with the degree totally understanding what was going on, it was eerie and beautiful in a way I cannot describe. So without the tools to understand what was happening, I can imagine that would be really freaky. Well, I'm glad that everyone is going to get a chance to play with this map and plan for the eclipse that's coming up. Where can people actually access this map online?

Stephen Watkins: So they can access the map at TheEclipse.Company? That's our URL. And we have various links through The Planetary Society's articles that they've written. That's where they can access us.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'll leave a link to it on the page for this episode of Planetary Radio so that anybody who wants to look at it can go to our website, go to their website, get in there, really find your place where you're going to be able to experience this, because I'm telling you, you don't want to miss it. You want to drag your friends, your pets. Just get everyone you can to go witness this because we're not going to have another total solar eclipse in this part of the United States in 20 years. So it's going to be quite a while before we get another opportunity to do this. Who are you guys going to be dragging out with you?

Jesse Tomlinson: The list is honestly growing every day of people we're-

Stephen Watkins: Yeah, exactly.

Jesse Tomlinson: ... trying to get out.

Stephen Watkins: As many as possible, that's for sure.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I've been working right now to get as many of my friends ready to get those tickets for Eclipse-O-Rama because planning is going fast, and anybody out there who's thinking about doing this should probably find their hotel, find their lodging, make their plan as soon as possible, because already those hotel rooms are filling up. So this is your moment. Go look at that Eclipse app. Go look at the eclipse map, get ready for it, because you will not want to miss this.

Stephen Watkins: That's right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, thanks for joining me, Jesse and Steve, and I hope so many more people get an opportunity to really grapple with this moment in history because of what you've created, because it can be complex and it can be a daunting thing to plan for, but I think this beautiful tool that you've created is really going to make it accessible for a whole lot of people. So personal thank you from me to you and from The Planetary Society for collaborating with us on this.

Jesse Tomlinson: Yeah. Thanks, Sarah. Appreciate it.

Stephen Watkins: Cool. Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We're less than six months out from the upcoming 2024 total solar eclipse, so it's definitely time to make plans. And if you don't live in North America, no worries. If you're patient enough, a total solar eclipse will come your way eventually. You can check out the Planetary Society's guide to future total solar eclipses on our website at No matter where you live on this planet, really seriously go out there and try to witness one of these things. It will be an unforgettable moment that you'll be talking about for years to come. Now, let's check in with Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society for What's Up? Hey, Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Hello.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: How is life going?

Bruce Betts: Oh, it's spiffy keen.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I feel like my life is always enhanced by the fact that I'm constantly just bombarded with cool space stuff all the time. And after hearing about Lindy Elkins-Tanton's experience with the Psyche launch and the beautiful story behind how our Eclipse map app partnership came together, I wanted to ask you, what are the space moments that you feel like produce the most awe in you, or things that you think people should go see at least once in their lifetime?

Bruce Betts: Well, for me personally, it's recording Planetary Radio with you first. I mean, number one. But there are other things, surprisingly enough, and one of them is total solar eclipse is super awesome. Partial is really cool. Launches, of course, as you've mentioned. What about you, Sarah, or if you already talked about that on the show?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: No, there's a lot of things that I feel like are... It's funny. It seems like they're very simple, but people don't get to experience them enough. We talked a little bit about light pollution in the conversation about eclipses. The fundamental thing that I want to encourage people to try to do is get out of the city, go see that Milky Way galaxy up over your head, or go see a meteor shower, that kind of thing.

Bruce Betts: Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Because every once in a while I take friends out to dark sky sites to go camping. Usually, we just want to go chill and jam guitar around a campfire somewhere. But then they get out, they look up at the night sky, and they'll just straight burst into tears because they've never seen it before.

Bruce Betts: Wow.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So that's a cool moment. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, go to the Southern Hemisphere and check out their sky, because just that little change in perspective not only offers you the opportunity to see the moon in a different respect or see the Magellanic Clouds, but see whole stars and constellations that you've literally never gotten a chance to see before. We make a lot of jokes on the show about the fact that every time you go to a launch, it doesn't necessarily work. So have you actually gotten to see a space launch in person that went up and was successful?

Bruce Betts: Yes, once.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Once? Which one was it?

Bruce Betts: That was the only one that I went to see that I didn't have either a professional reason or a VIP type invite. It's an exaggeration of VIP, but it was the only one that just went as like a drove over and watched it from a distance from Orlando in the middle of the night and a space shuttle launch that occurred. It was quite lovely, quite successful, quite profound launch right before dawn. So the sun came up behind it and cast the shadow across the sky from the rocket trail. So it was a good one. But I've been to many launch that delayed. I mean, fortunately I've never been to one or that had a true failure. I just get the launch aborts due to weather or due to mechanical things or... You know. You went with me to the one for the launches that was delayed, and eventually you got to go home and then they feel it's okay to launch.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Right. The trick is that you just have to be in chill mode. You just need to be not working in order for it to work. So one of these days we should go to rocket launch, but you should not be working.

Bruce Betts: Yeah. I don't know if I can do that, but I can try.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wanted to read this comment that we got from one of our Planetary Society members, Robert Johannessen who was talking about our previous episode about Lou Friedman's book about searching for life in the universe. Lou Friedman being the co-founder of The Planetary Society. And I thought this was really cool. Robert not only loves the search for life, but actually created a Drake equation app that you can download on the app store. I thought that was so cool. That's dedication.

Bruce Betts: That is cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I downloaded it and played around with it a little. It was a good way to explain how that equation works and how each of these different things that can impact the search for life in the universe kind of dial that knob a little bit.

Bruce Betts: Or a lot. It's quite useful. It's a strange equation since we don't know what most of the parameters are, but that's why you fiddle with them and see how it varies.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But part of the reason I wanted to read that comment and share that was not only because learning more about the Drake equation is awesome, but primarily because they left a PS that said specifically, "Hi, Bruce." So they wanted to say hello to you.

Bruce Betts: Well, hi. That's really cool and that's cool that you got that app. I'll look for that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And really though, if anybody wants to say hi to Bruce or to me, or to send us any of your thoughts and questions, please do so because I love reading all your messages. They really brighten my day and make us feel like we're actually doing a good thing for this world.

Bruce Betts: Cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So what is our random space fact?

Bruce Betts: Random space fact.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Are you looking for brains right now, Bruce?

Bruce Betts: Brains.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Uh-oh.

Bruce Betts: No. We're near Halloween this US and so just thought... I didn't know I was a zombie, but thanks for pointing that out. Apparently I am. So anyway, fortunately my fact is far more fun than my zombie. That has to do with Venus. You probably are aware. You may have heard that the surface of Venus is hot. Have you heard this, Sarah?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Have you heard this? Have you seen this? Yeah.

Bruce Betts: Very hot. I could tell you that, but I'm sure we've talked about it before. 700 plus Kelvins, almost 500 C, almost 900 Fahrenheit. But what's interesting is it's almost isothermal and the surface temperature doesn't change particularly over time because there's so much atmospheric blanketing of the surface and greenhouse effect and clouds that are reflect anyway. But my real point is where you do get a variation is with altitude just like you do on Earth. And the highest point on Venus, Maxwell Montes is the coolest point on the surface at least usually with a temperature that's 80 Kelvins or Celsius over 100 Fahrenheit, lower than the average surface of Venus. And it also interestingly has about half the atmospheric pressure. And you may wonder, because I did, how's that compared to Mount Everest? Mount Everest compared to sea level is about 30% of the atmospheric pressure at sea level, which I was surprised it's that low. But what do I know? It's Earth. All right, there you go. That's it, Sarah. You're blown away.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I am though. That is really cool to think about. Now, I'm wondering about all the different things that might be affected by that. Classically, people say that lead melts on the surface of Venus, but I don't know off the top of my head know what the melting point of lead is. So could you take your bucket of molten lead to the top of the planet or to the top of Maxwell Montes. We'll have to look it up. All right. Let's take this out.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there, look up the night sky and think about what you could use a highlighter on right now that would make you happy. Possibly someone you're with. Thank you and goodnight.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with the authors of the new book, A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? A little spicy. I love it. You can help others discover the passion, beauty, and joy of space science and exploration by leaving a review and a rating on platforms like Apple Podcasts. Your feedback not only brightens our day, but also helps other curious minds find their place in space through Planetary Radio. You can also send us your space thoughts, questions, and poetry at our email at [email protected]. Or if you're a Planetary Society member, leave a comment in the Planetary Radio space in our member community app. Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our awe-filled members. You can join us as we celebrate all the ways that space brings us together at Mark Hilverda and Rae Paoletta are our associate producers. Andrew Lucas is our audio editor. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. And until next week, ad astra.