Planetary Radio • Mar 13, 2024

Tales of totality: The adventures of an eclipse chaser

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Jim Bell

Past President (2008-2020), Board of Directors of The Planetary Society; Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University; Principal Investigator, NASA Perseverance rover Mastcam-Z instruments

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Jack kiraly portrait 2023

Jack Kiraly

Director of Government Relations for The Planetary Society

Bruce betts portrait hq library

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

The countdown is on! With less than a month until the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, Planetary Radio is buzzing with anticipation. This celestial event will sweep across Mexico, the United States, and Canada, promising a spectacular view to millions. Jim Bell, a professor from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and former president of The Planetary Society's Board of Directors, will share captivating tales from his global eclipse-chasing journeys. But before diving into the cosmic wonders, we'll bring you the latest updates on the proposed US Presidential Budget. The Planetary Society's space policy experts, Casey Dreier and Jack Kiraly, will explain what this budget proposal means for NASA's funding and future projects. Then, the great Bruce Betts will pop in for What's Up as host Sarah Al-Ahmed looks forward to high-fiving him in person at The Planetary Society's upcoming Eclipse-O-Rama event in Texas, U.S.

2013 solar eclipse viewed from the mid-Atlantic
2013 solar eclipse viewed from the mid-Atlantic Image: Tyler Nordgren
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
The path of totality
The path of totality The total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 begins in the Pacific Ocean and crosses through Mexico, the United States, and Canada before ending in the Atlantic Ocean. In the U.S., the path of totality — the portion of the eclipse that will see the darkest part of the Moon's shadow — is a ribbon approximately 185 kilometers (115 miles) wide, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.Image: The Eclipse Company


Sarah Al-Ahmed: Why chase total solar eclipses around the world? We'll find out 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. The countdown to the next total solar eclipse continues. We are now less than one month from a celestial event that will wow millions of people across Mexico, the United States and Canada. Our guest today is Jim Bell, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and the past president of The Planetary Society's Board of Directors. He'll share beautiful stories about his eclipse chasing adventures around the world. But first, we have a fresh off the press update on the new U.S. presidential budget request and what it means for NASA's funding and programs. Our space policy team, Casey Dreier and Jack Kiraly will explain. Then the great Bruce Betts will pop in for What's Up as we look forward to high-fiving in person at our Eclipse-O-Rama event in Texas, USA. 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 our place within it. NASA's fiscal year 2025 annual budget request was announced on March 11th. This is a pivotal moment in the agency's financial planning. The process starts with a proposal by the White House and culminates with legislation in Congress, which then has to be approved and signed by the President of the United States. The budget request outlines allocations for various sectors of NASA, including human space exploration, space science, and technological advancements. The budget proposal for the next fiscal year is about $25.4 billion, which is about a 2% increase from the previous year. It's an interesting situation considering that NASA's budget for 2024 was only recently approved. The delays to the budgeting process caused many knock-on effects, including the unfortunate layoffs of hundreds of people at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Given NASA's stature as the largest space exploration organization in the world, this budget's implications extend beyond the United States, affecting international partners that are engaging in collaborative space exploration. Joining us to unpack all of these recent updates are Casey Dreier, our chief of space policy, and Jack Kiraly, our director of government relations here at The Planetary Society. Hi Casey and Jack.

Casey Dreier: Hi Sarah.

Jack Kiraly: Hi Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So when last we met, we were talking about what was going down with the 2024 presidential budget request from NASA and now we have the 2025 presidential budget request for NASA. So before we actually get into it, what was the resolution to that situation with the previous budget?

Casey Dreier: Well, 2024 was delayed significantly, right? We are five months into the fiscal year 2024, we just got a budget as we record this about a week and a half ago and it wrapped up okay. Again, it wasn't great. NASA, relatively speaking, lost 2% of its budget from the year before. Actually, its final budget was less than either proposed senator of the house. So something shrunk even in between the process of its initial proposals and the final outcome. Nonetheless, there are some good things in there. It's always good to have a budget rather than stay in this period of uncertainty, which is what led to the layoffs at JPL and other NASA centers that we've been seeing. I'll highlight the good things and then maybe Jack, you can talk about the bad things.

Jack Kiraly: I can do that.

Casey Dreier: The good things. Let's talk about good things. NEO Surveyor, our planetary defense space telescope got stalwart support from Congress. Really great to see that. That mission grew in funding this year, keeping it on track for a launch this decade. That's really important. Huge turnaround for that mission. We saw Artemis move forward. Artemis has passed yet another political hurdle that in a shrinking budget situation, its budget grew. So NASA's top line went down, but the chunk devoted to Artemis grew slightly. That's pretty amazing. That has survived. That's a political test that we have not seen a lunar return program pass in decades. So that's a good thing to see. That keeps the project moving forward. I don't know if I could say on track because it has been slipping in terms of its schedule, but a lot of things are lining up for Artemis. So the case has been made there. The other good thing, which is also kind of a bad thing, which is Mars Sample Return, which had the big division between the Senate, which threatened to cancel the mission and the House, which wanted to give it $950 million, the full request. It ended up being this weird wishy-washy language that said, "You can spend no less than 300 million," that was the Senate's number, "but you're not canceled. We swear. All that Senate stuff threatening your cancellation, this new budget cap, we're not agreeing to that. That is not the case. You can spend up to 950 if you want, but we're not going to give you the money to do that." So the overall amount of money for planetary science went down by half a billion dollars. That cut is basically the cut absorbed from the rest of the space agency. So that allowed every other science division to stay flat relative to 2023, and it allowed NASA, other projects to stay flat or grow slightly. So MSR basically took it on the chin to enable steady funding for every other part of the agency. And it's kind of interesting. So a lot of people were worried about this idea that MSR would grow so big, it would eat everyone's lunch. Literally, the opposite happened. Everyone else ate MSR's lunch in order to stay nice and... To extend this metaphor. And MSR now is in this really interesting and challenging situation where it has some political support, but it doesn't have a lot of funding. But at the end of the day, NASA hasn't even said how they want to move forward so they probably didn't need the funding

Jack Kiraly: Yeah. And probably a good segue into some of the other things that we'll talk about in the FY '25 budget as it relates to Mars Sample Return. But yeah, overall not a particularly great budget for science. Though, Casey, as you note, the cuts fell predominantly on the Planetary Science Division and specifically on Mars Sample Return. And that ethos of, well, we're going to fully support this program but not give you clear direction as to the exact funding level carries over into FY '25. Two other small programs that I would like to note are Habitable Worlds Observatory actually has a program office now. It's not in the GOMAP, the Great Observatories Maturation something project, program. It actually has a program office.

Casey Dreier: I think that was the actual title of that project. You kind of threw it together. But you're right, I mean, it has some structure now to that program.

Jack Kiraly: Yeah. And located at the Goddard Space Flight Center, which has historically been where all of the major space telescopes have been built. The other big note, and I think this is probably something really near and dear to all of us on this recording as well as the listener is VERITAS got a very strong note of support in the appropriations' language, with a request encouraging NASA to aim for a launch by the end of the decade.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wonder how much of that was due in part to the massive public outcry and so many people trying to support that Venus mission.

Jack Kiraly: I would say that this is a prime example of advocacy in action. And because of the thousands of letters that were sent to Congress, the hundreds of conversations that me and members of our board and leadership and you, the listener and members of The Planetary Society made that happen. And that's truly extraordinary.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So some good news did come out of all of that, even though it was a very stressful period for a lot of us and for a lot of NASA facilities that were waiting to hear what happened with the 2024 budget. Now, we have this proposed 2025 budget. How is that different from what came before?

Casey Dreier: This is the start of what last week's budget was the end of, if that makes sense. This is the President's proposal. This kicks off the debate. This sets the terms of the argument, the discussion, and even though Congress ultimately appropriates the money, all of the details that are included in this President's budget request tend to have a lot of force for things that Congress doesn't directly address. I always like to put this in perspective, NASA's budget request is around 700 pages long. It details exactly what the agency intends to do in every single program office and program area that it does. It's amazing actually to read through. Congress's budget for NASA is probably 15 pages. And so whenever Congress doesn't explicitly kind of tweak something, generally the President's budget request will be what happens. And so caring about what's in this and being aware of what's in this is very important, even though Congress ultimately appropriates the money. And so what we're seeing here is the start of moving forward for fiscal year '25, which begins October 1st. We will not have a congressional action. I feel pretty comfortable predicting the future on this one. We'll see. We won't have a budget probably by then because this little thing called the presidential election in the United States is happening a month later. Very likely they will delay this budget consideration until after that and maybe even into the next Congress that gets seated next January based on who wins and who loses and what power will be and who knows. So this is a sort of a long conversation, but it sets again, these terms and what we're seeing is that the President's budget request now is operating under these debt limit spending limits that were passed by Congress and agreed to by the White House last year. This is one of the reasons why NASA shrank in 2024, and this is a reason why NASA will almost certainly continue to at least stay flat, but in this restricted budget situation going forward. And they request $25.4 billion. So it's a 2% increase. Basically, keeps it flat with what NASA had in '23 before Congress cut it. But again, we all know that inflation has been going on, the dollar doesn't buy as much as it used to. And if you run the numbers, NASA's buying power in 2024, assuming NASA's own predicted inflation levels, are going to be down over a billion and a half dollars compared to what it had at its peak in 2020. So in a sense, even though there's been some modest increases, even compounded with these cuts, NASA is losing close to $2 billion worth of its buying power as it's trying to do these incredible, send humans back to the moon, build Habitable Worlds Observatory, and retrieve samples from Mars, all these major scientific and human space flight programs that they're told to do. This isn't NASA begging to do this. This is directed by the White House and Congress. We just don't have the money to do this in this scenario.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: So what do you think that means for programs like Mars Sample Return or the Artemis program?

Jack Kiraly: Well, it's just more uncertainty into an already uncertain situation and-

Casey Dreier: Can we just talk about how weird the Mars Sample Return budget request was though?

Jack Kiraly: I've never seen that and I feel like I'm pretty well-read in congressional budget requests, maybe having a few dozen read under my belt. And I've never seen TBD be listed for any program, let alone the flagship top priority of the planetary science community as not only said by the previous Decadal Survey, the current Decadal Survey, but also the independent review board report that came out last year and Congress's own legislation that funds NASA for the rest of this year very clearly states this is the top priority for the community, and yet it's to be determined what that funding request is.

Casey Dreier: Literally, right? This isn't a metaphor. You look at a budget, you usually put in numbers to make things add up because dollars come in quantifiable chunks.

Jack Kiraly: You can count them.

Casey Dreier: They're quantized. And this year, I've again, literally never seen anything like this. You go to the Mars Sample Return section in planetary science, there are no numbers. It's just literally the three letters, TBD. And it speaks to, I think that while Mars Sample Return kind of survived last year, weakened, it is definitely not out of the woods. And again, I think this goes to the situation that NASA at the time of release of this budget has not actually proposed what this reconstituted replanned Mars Sample Return is going to be. And so I mean, I feel a little bit for the budgeting office at the White House saying, "You don't know what you want to do. Well, why even give you money? What am I talking about? What do you need?" And they can't say. I don't know why it's taking so long. It's probably not a great situation to be in, but it's just astonishing to see that TBD. And the problem is, and what happened is, as a consequence, that you have a budget for planetary science, which is not altogether bad at 2.7 billion, but of course it's literally just missing TBD plus a number equals that number. It's not adding anything. And they said, we got confirmation from Nikki Fox, who's the associate administrator for NASA Science Mission Directorate, yesterday at a press briefing, if they do have a path forward for MSR, which we expect in the next few months and they do want to request money for it, that planetary top line of 2.7 will not increase in this budget. There's no extra money for Mars Sample Return. And that means they're setting this up in a way that I feel is very potentially divisive of here's this great budget you could have for everything else, but you want to do Mars Sample Return? Well, choose which program you want to sacrifice to Mars Sample Return, which of course only makes you enemies. And so this is a real serious issue that we have not resolved. There is some money tucked away that can be put towards Mars Sample Return. It's not enough to move forward at any level of realistic aspect for the program. You will need to take it from somewhere. Or I think what Jack and I will be making the case and what hopefully you as a Planetary Society member will help us make the case for is that Congress needs to come in and provide this money from somewhere else. We cannot set up, and this is Jack and I, we've been talking about this. This budget is set up to continue and enforce the circular firing squad of pitting NASA Science projects against other NASA Science projects in this zero-sum game that will only end up undermining all of them. This is not a science budget that enables any flagship mission, whether it's Mars Sample Return, whether it's Habitable Worlds Observatory, whether it's Heliophysics, you just don't have the money to do any of these. And if every science division starts fighting against every other science division, that weakness will create this political opportunity for science in general to lose funding. And I fear that's our big philosophical fear about this budget is that it is almost designed exquisitely to enforce this mentality rather than create a unifying, we need to stand together for NASA space science and exploration.

Jack Kiraly: And we saw that with just what happened last week, which I will note I think is probably the shortest lag time between a fiscal year appropriation being passed and the President's budget request coming out. The back and forth that happened over the last year, the fighting over whether it was Mars Sample Return or the Heliophysics budget line, all of the inviting within the scientific community and between certain stakeholders within the Congress resulted in a lower overall budget for NASA science. And so you can't have a truly balanced portfolio that enables these flagship missions. And it's not just the flagships, but it's also the principal investigator led missions like VERITAS, like DAVINCI, Dragonfly, the research programs, the future planning, the administration of existing missions. You can't have a balanced portfolio, which is the number one recommendation of every Decadal Survey that's come out in the last five years is balance above all else. You can't have that with a top line number that is essentially a $1 billion cut from the high point in fiscal year 2020.

Casey Dreier: Yeah.

Jack Kiraly: And so now is the time, and we saw this with VERITAS. We saw this with a number of actions within the last few years that members of The Planetary Society and supporters of The Planetary Society and planetary exploration stood up and said, "We want this." NEO Surveyor is a great example, VERITAS is a great example that we have power to influence this process, and now is that time to get involved. And so please go to and send letters to your members of Congress encouraging them to support a robust and increased science budget for fiscal year 2025 that enables true balance of the portfolio. And then consider coming to our Day of Action on April 29th if you want to take that next step. The three of us will be there. We're really looking forward to this opportunity to be on the ground with you advocating for space science in a way that truly makes a difference, that is memorable. Members of Congress and their staff tell me all the time about the conversations they've had with space advocates like yourself. And this is truly the best way that you as a resident of the United States can influence public policy as it relates to planetary exploration. So, please. and consider joining the Day of Action on April 29th, 2024.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, if you're going to do it, this is the right year to do it. We're pushing up against a lot. And again, I think these cuts happen to programs like NASA Science or even just NASA in general. We haven't touched on Artemis does okay in this. It grows slightly but basically stays flat. That's a very difficult project to do too. These cuts happen to agencies like NASA because they think it's politically easy to do it, that there's no consequences for doing it, and the more we can show them otherwise by showing up in Washington DC, by writing your representatives if you live in the United States, the more we can make the case that that is not true, that people are paying attention. And that's ultimately one of the big arguments you make is that this is not some bank of NASA that's used to pay for their other pet projects. These are really important, science-driven, exploration-motivated, peaceful purpose, broadly unifying things that we do. One of the most beautiful and I think pure things we do as a nation, as a species. And it's not worth kneecapping that when things get tough. And so this is something we're going to move forward. I will mention that if you want to look at all these numbers that we're talking about and a detail and summary of the '24 and the '25 NASA budget, has links to all of those. We maintain a pretty detailed NASA budget tracking page. And if you really are a quant and love numbers, I have a detailed historical tables of NASA's budget since 1958 and very detailed budgeting tables for all of Planetary Science since 1960. And you can see the trends of planetary exploration, trends of NASA spending relative to discretionary spending and outliers and the other kind of fun budgeting stuff. So you can pick your level of insanity for a budget. That's all at, if you want to look at that.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Someone who loves numbers, I'm really glad that we have that level of detail for people who really want to get into it.

Casey Dreier: I love numbers too until TBD started showing up.

Jack Kiraly: That's not a number.

Casey Dreier: I can't add those.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Just add C.

Jack Kiraly: You had to put in notes on our tracking tables.

Casey Dreier: Completely, completely crazy. Lots of NaNs on Excel spreadsheets, right? It's lots of value errors. That's completely nuts. And then again, this is an unprecedented situation. MSR is really just in a wild situation.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But thankfully, we've seen the power of our advocates come out over the last few months. It has been so wonderful to see how many people have been using our action center to send in letters. And I think that this is going to be another one of those moments that we'll look back on, right now, it's a little dicey, but we'll look back on with a little bit of pride knowing that so many people cared and that they made their voice heard on this.

Casey Dreier: That's a great way to think of it, and it is. It reminds people about what's at stake, and we've had it really good for the last 10 years really. And that's changing. And this happens. I've been through this at least once before, and you can come out stronger on the other side of this. And that's the thing. If you survive, if MSR survives a near programmatic death experience, it will probably be better for it. It will be stronger as a political support. It will probably be a better design. It will have much more attention and focus. Same for a lot of other flagship missions. So this is part of living in a democracy at the end of the day. I can complain about this, but it's what we have to deal with. We have to make the case. We never can stop making the case because democracies are a constant discussion about our priorities and our desires and our shared values. And so in a way, we can think of this as... You know what? Only old millennials reference the Simpsons anymore. Is that true? But a "Crisotunity" is what Homer Simpson would say, and we have this ability again to really drum up. And again, that seeing the member response and seeing the support is always just really, it's not just heartwarming for Jack and I, it's very encouraging and I think valuable for people too.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, I'm looking forward to joining both of you in Washington DC in a little over one month. And I think first of all, we'll go out. We'll have our minds blown by that total solar eclipse, and we'll use that good space will to take everyone to go vouch for NASA's funding and for space funding in general across the world. Now's a beautiful time for us all work together and hopefully help save these programs.

Casey Dreier: We're on the cusp of the future.

Jack Kiraly: Let's do it together. Stand together.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks Jack and Casey.

Casey Dreier: Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Now, we turn to the upcoming celestial event that has people across North America gearing up with anticipation. The total solar eclipse on April 8th, 2024. For many in Mexico, the United States and Canada, this is going to be their first total solar eclipse. But for our next guest, Dr. Jim Bell, this is just the next quest in his eclipse chasing adventures. Eclipse chasers are passionate about experiencing and observing solar and lunar eclipses from various locations around the world. But of the different types of eclipses that we experience here on earth, let me tell you, total solar eclipses are definitely the most spectacular. The motivation behind eclipse chasing is multifaceted, but at its core, it combines an interest in astronomy with the love of adventure and travel. Total solar eclipses aren't necessarily rare on our planet, they occur about once every 18 months, but you have to be in very specific places and times to observe them. The difference between a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse can be a matter of kilometers, and the experience is completely different. It can be hundreds of years before that location has another opportunity to experience the same phenomenon. That means that enthusiasts often travel great distances, sometimes to remote or challenging locations in order to witness these events. I've only experienced one total solar eclipse so far, but Dr. Jim Bell has witnessed many more. Jim is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and the principal investigator for NASA's Perseverance rover Mastcam-Z instruments. He was also the president of The Planetary Society's Board of Directors from 2008 to 2020. Many of Jim's eclipse excursions have been with The Planetary Society's travel partners at Betchart Expeditions. They offer natural history and space travel opportunities to people around the world. Here are some of Jim Bell's eclipse chasing adventures. Hi, Jim. Thanks for joining me at Planetary Society headquarters.

Jim Bell: Sarah, spectacular to be here back in the vault and just spectacular to see how you are doing such a great job with Planetary Radio.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thank you. That's so kind of you. And for anyone who doesn't get that reference, our recording studio used to be a bank vault. It's a whole side story, but I wanted to talk to you about your experiences eclipse chasing because from what I've heard, you've seen so many of them, and this is a personal aspiration for me. I would love to see that many.

Jim Bell: Yes. I became an eclipse chaser, total solar eclipse chaser to be specific, in 2010 actually through The Planetary Society. And I was approached by a tour group that we work with called the Betchart Expeditions. And I lovingly refer to what they do as nerd tours because they take people, they see eclipses, they go to see the Aurora, they go to Galapagos and Antarctica. It's nature and astronomical kinds of tours. And they attract just wonderful, amazing people, including lots of Planetary Society members who are just super excited about the night sky. And there were enough members going on that trip that Betchart reached out to the society and said, "Could you send a representative to help give some presentations and talk about the astronomical event and its significance and just make a link between all the society members and the organization and all that?" So I said, "Sure, why not?" And that was in 2010 to Tahiti, and it was a just spectacular event. And I have seen seven total solar eclipses since then with Planetary Society members on these wonderful tours, and the upcoming event in April will be number eight for me.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What was it about your first experience seeing that total solar eclipse that continues to draw you back to this?

Jim Bell: Yeah, it's one thing to understand it academically, right? Here's where the moon is, here's where the sun is, here's where the Earth is. Occasionally, the shadow crosses the Earth, and I teach introductory astronomy. So it's one thing to know academically what's happening, but it turns out it's an entirely different thing to feel it, to sense it, and to see the disc of the moon completely block the sun and to look up in the sky and to see something that you have never seen before in your life and only will rarely see in your life in the future if you're lucky to be at the right place. To me, it sounds silly, but kind of my monkey brain took over, something deep in my cerebral cortex. It was saying, "Whoa! This is not right. Something is wrong here. The sky should not look like that." And that was kind of mixed in with just the awe and wonder and beauty of just seeing one of the most spectacular celestial phenomena that you could ever see.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I felt the same thing when I was looking up at the eclipse in 2017. No amount of academic study is going to prepare you for what you see, and I really did. It's like I could feel the trepidation of my ancestors in my bones almost. It was such a strange experience.

Jim Bell: Yes, yes. And I had seen partial solar eclipses before, and even partials in the 90 percents are just not the same as completely shutting off the sun and just experiencing that and being in that shadow. It was life-changing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What particularly was it that's so unsettling about it? Was it the experience of the sky darkening or were there any other experiences during the eclipse that really made that such an experience for you?

Jim Bell: Well, I mean, it was partly, it's not just a sky phenomenon, it's a meteorological phenomenon. It got a little chilly, it got windy. Where we were was by the ocean. You could really feel the ocean breezes. You could see way off in the horizon. You could still see that it was sunny way out there out in the ocean because the shadow only has a limited extent. It was also zoological. There were birds that started chirping, small mammals started coming out of the trees, and so it was really a couple of minutes of just weirdness that you don't normally experience, and that was kind of fun. The other part of it was that we were, the group was on a remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific, a tiny little island called an Anaa, which is part of French Polynesia. And there are only about 400 people that lived there year round. And this group of 50 of us showed up on a charter flight and completely changed the social dynamics of the island, and they didn't have any hotels or restaurants, so they opened their homes to us. They turned their school into our hotel. They were making meals for us, music and dance shows. Just being able to interact with the rest of the world was a big deal for them. And actually one of the most amazing parts of that trip was that the eclipse was great, but it wasn't the highlight. It was really spending time with these people out in this remote area who are trying to build up tourism. They want people to come visit, and it's just a spectacular place. I remember we took a boat ride across the lagoon to this beach on the other side, about 10 miles away. Many boats, the fishermen used their boats to ship us all, and we get to this beach and it's one of these things, if I can paint a picture of a white sand beach with swooping coconut trees and there's nobody there, it was just absolutely spectacular. We spent just a magical day in the middle of nowhere to watch the shadow of the moon.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That sounds like a beautiful experience.

Jim Bell: It was a great experience, yes.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We'll be right back with the rest of my interview with Jim Bell after this short break.

Bill Nye: The total solar eclipse is almost here. Join me and The Planetary Society on April 7th and 8th for Eclipse-O-Rama 2024, our can't miss total solar eclipse camping festival in Fredericksburg, Texas. See this rare celestial event with us and experience a whopping four minutes and 24 seconds of totality. The next total solar eclipse like this won't be visible in North America until 2044. So don't miss this wonderful opportunity to experience the Solar System as seen from Spaceship Earth. Get your Eclipse-O-Rama 2024 tickets today at

Mat Kaplan: Hi, it's your old friend, Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society. A total solar eclipse is coming to North America on April 8th. More than 600 million of you will be able to see at least a partial eclipse, and over 40 million people live in the path of totality. If you want to be ready to experience this rare cosmic event to the fullest, take The Planetary Society's online course all about solar and lunar eclipses. It's only available to Planetary Society members in our wonderful member community. So join us today at That's

Sarah Al-Ahmed: My experience during 2017 was similar, although in a very different location in that I was in a very small town in the middle of Wyoming, and just the way that we bonded with the people in that town. The local coffee shop sent all their kids out to bring us coffee. It was such a moment for all of us to bond together, and I feel like that's part of what's so interesting about total solar eclipses. They really make everyone in the area come together in a way that you don't see around other kinds of celestial phenomenon.

Jim Bell: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's a teachable moment in a lot of ways. The educator in me is like wants to tell everybody about what's happening and all that. The last one, last year, we went to East Timor, which is one of the newest nations in the world, just north of Western Australia, tiny little country. And there it was interesting because there's still a lot of superstition about eclipses and some people in the government were telling folks to stay inside. It's dangerous for you. And yet their education ministry was like, "Go experience it, use the glasses," that kind of thing. And so it was a really interesting mix to see this kind of an event in a developing country and to see that mix of both the old and the new come to life and interacting with those folks was great too and another special experience.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Sounds like I need to go on one of these Betchart Expeditions. That sounds like a lot of fun. Well, I wanted to share with you some of the questions that our Planetary Society members in the United States had about total solar eclipses because literally millions of people are gearing up to go see this, and I'm sure your experiences would help them on their journey. So Jennifer DeVos from Virginia wanted to know, what keeps you coming back each time?

Jim Bell: They're all different. Every one of them is different. And for me, it's the mixture of the location because they're often in, like you said, small remote places. It turns out every single spot on Earth will experience a total solar eclipse about once every 300 years. So they happen all over the place. And so it's a great opportunity to travel to sometimes really exotic and different places that I would never go otherwise. And then the events themselves are all dramatically different. Sometimes the sun is low and the skies, sometimes it's partly cloudy. I had one of them that was completely clouded out, and that was a little bit sad because it got dark and everybody knew what was going on, and yet there was this deck of clouds between us and the event. So that was a little bit sad. Another one I got to see from an airplane at 40,000 feet in the air and that was the most spectacular view of the solar corona. You could see the magnetic field lines in the sun's corona from that altitudes and above so much of the Earth's atmosphere. I mean, that was spectacular. So it's that mix of locations and the variability of the event. And then in my case, traveling with the tour groups, traveling with Planetary Society members, you meet so many interesting people from all over the world with such amazing backgrounds. And like you said, you're bonding together over this one incredibly amazing celestial event.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That leads really well into another question that someone asked. Robert Wilmore from Washington wanted to know, what is the funnest, largest turnout from a nearby community that you've experienced at one of these eclipses?

Jim Bell: Oh, boy. I think, yeah, actually probably two. I'll have two answers to that. One, the 2017 one in Wyoming. We were at a ski resort and people would take the ski lifts up to where you would get off and then ski down. Of course, there was no snow because it was summertime. It was a big plateau up there, and there were, I don't know, maybe a thousand people up there. There was a band. The band was playing Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, the eclipse part of it, and it was just a party atmosphere and everybody was in a joyous mood and the event was beautiful. And from that scene, you could see 360 degrees around the horizon, and that was a big party and people from all over the country, all over the world were there. The second answer probably tied for first place was that first eclipse that I saw in 2010 on the atoll of Anaa, and there were 50 of us in the group and 400 people who live on that small island, and almost everybody was there on the beach, and it was for the people of this small community, it was the first time almost all of them had seen a total solar eclipse. And so they had a lot of questions about it, and we had lots of glasses we were passing out, and I gave a lecture. We had to set up this makeshift screen for the projector with a bedsheet on the end of a pier. And so everybody's on the pier, which is only about 10 feet wide, kind of sitting, and I'm giving my talk and the sun is setting, and Mars is off in the distance, and I was talking about Mars rovers and space exploration, and it was just like magic. And then the eclipse happened and it was great.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I bet people there are still talking about that to this day.

Jim Bell: Yeah. And I would love to find a way to go back. We made a lot of friends in a very short amount of time.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Michael O'Brien from Michigan wanted me to ask you, what did you enjoy most about the people that you met along the way?

Jim Bell: I think it's been that common interests despite dramatically different backgrounds of everybody involved. You're all there to focus on this rare celestial alignment and the coincidence of the moon being roughly the same angular diameter as the sun and the sky, and the amazing ability of science to predict exactly where that shadow will pass decades, centuries in advance, and just getting to meet folks who, regardless of what they do in their life or their job, their education, their age, whatever, regardless, everyone's there for the same thing. To really soak this in, to enjoy it, and to celebrate these kinds of amazing celestial events

Sarah Al-Ahmed: After the 2017 eclipse, well, first you get stuck in the traffic jam. So we were stuck in a traffic jam for maybe eight hours, but afterwards we stopped at a restaurant and everyone at that restaurant had been to see the total solar eclipse from different locations, from different states, and it just sparked a conversation between all of us. The people that you meet along the way is almost one of my favorite parts right after how absolutely mind-blowing the eclipse itself is.

Jim Bell: Totally agree. Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Tim Robinson from Texas wanted me to ask, what is the longest totality you've experienced?

Jim Bell: Oh, gosh. I think, I'm trying to remember which one it was. It might've been one that I saw in Indonesia. We went to the island of Sulawesi, which is one of the mosquito-borne disease capitals of the world. So everybody had to get very well vaccinated, and that was, I want to say maybe three minutes or so, three and change. So it just has happened that they haven't been super, super long, but also not super short. But still, it doesn't matter how long they are, they seem to go by in an instant. It's over way too fast. The first thing out of everybody's mouth when the sun comes back is, "Aw. Really? That was it. It was over that fast?" So not long enough, I guess that's the answer.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Time is relative, but in those moments it seems way more relative than it should be.

Jim Bell: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: This actually comes to this next point because a lot of us people that want to go see the eclipse are worried about the weather, and clearly you've experienced all kinds of weather during these events. So Devin O'Rourke from Colorado wanted me to ask you just to address the Eclipse-O-Rama anxiety. If the weather doesn't cooperate, is it worth staying where you are or should you try to move to a location that might have better weather as quickly as possible?

Jim Bell: Yeah, it just depends, right? If it's a solid deck of clouds, it's not going to help. If it's big puffy clouds from here and there and you have mobility, you're not stuck in a traffic jam or something like that, then I have known people who have done that, especially people on the ocean watching eclipses. They have the ability to move the boat in different places. So hopefully, the meteorologists on TV and the internet will be watching closely and helping people do that. There's, I think very good odds of clear enough skies in the U.S. Southwest and in Mexico. It gets more dicey as you head towards the Northeast, and it is April, it's springtime, early springtime, the weather can be all over the place. It could be snowing in places, it could be crystal clear. So probably if it is cloudy, it'll be like a big cloud deck and people are just going to have to say, "Darn it, and it's going to get dark and it's going to get light again." But if you do have the mobility and some good maps or a connection to a good weather personality kind of person, then yeah, you can make some moves.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I do feel for all of our friends in the Northeast and up into Canada. I know they want to see it as well, and I'm sure some people will, but fingers crossed, I hope we all have great weather.

Jim Bell: It could happen. Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Craig Griffin from Pennsylvania wanted to know, what is the most exotic place that you viewed one of these eclipses?

Jim Bell: My goodness. There's a list of exotic places. I've mentioned the atoll of Anaa in the middle of the Pacific. If you've ever used Google Earth, you can spin the Earth to different orientations. You can spin the Earth, so you just see ocean, barely see Alaska, a little bit of South America and New Zealand, but it's like the ocean planet. You can spin it to a latitude and longitude. And Anaa is right in the middle of that. So literally in the middle of nowhere. Sulawesi in Indonesia, part of Indonesia that most people don't travel to for tourism. That was really exotic and kind of jungly. High altitude, 40,000 feet above off the coast of Iceland in an airplane, watching it outside the airplane window, which they had made sure to clean really well for everybody on the plane ahead of time. That was really cool. East Timor, I mentioned that last year, a tiny little new country that is really an emerging nation and super proud of their recent independence and a mixture of still the superstition about what's going on in the sky and the science in the education side. That was pretty exotic. And then this year, I'll be in Durango with Betchart and The Planetary Society members, a part of Mexico I'd never been to, a beautiful part of the country. They're telling us they're going to set up to observe in a town square, and we're expecting a bunch of the townspeople to come out. We'll be armed with lots of eclipse glasses, keep everybody safe until the totality happens, and hopefully have a chance to educate lots of folks about the coolness of the sun, moon, and sky.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I mean, really, if anybody out there is listening and wants to be the hero of the eclipse, get yourself a giant bag of eclipse glasses, particularly as you approach these events. They sell out everywhere. So when you show up with a bag of 50 eclipse glasses, people will literally sing for you.

Jim Bell: Yes, yes, absolutely. And it is really cool to be able to watch the sun with proper eye protection as the moon slowly moves across the disc of the sun because it takes more than an hour for that to happen. It's really slow. And even though the totality is only a few minutes at best, then it's over and the moon starts to move off again, and so you can watch it again with the glasses. So yes, keep your eyes safe out there and don't take off your glasses until that moment of totality, and you'll know when that moment is because everyone's going to be singing and dancing and yelling and drawing their arms up in the air and screaming and having a great time.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And there are all kinds of really cool things that you can see even when it's not in full totality. There's a lot of really beautiful effects that happen. Have you built any really cool pinhole projectors or anything like that?

Jim Bell: You know, I didn't, but it turns out you can use trees to do that. If you're near a tree and you just watch the sunlight dappling through the leaves of the tree, there's an infinite number of tiny little pinhole cameras there that nature is creating for you. And you look on the ground under the tree and you see these little crescent suns, and they get sharper and sharper as the moon gets closer and closer to covering the sun. That's pretty cool. So yes, but you can also, a very simple, a little pinhole in a postcard or a pinhole in the end of a shoebox and look at the other side of the shoebox, pinhole in a piece of paper. I've seen people use colanders, like you use for draining pasta. They make really nice pinhole cameras and you can project the images of the sun onto the ground. So lots of do it yourself ideas.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, last time, I combined some reading glasses with a piece of paper so I could use the lens to focus the pinhole.

Jim Bell: Very good.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That was pretty fun. But the images I saw from the last annular solar eclipse we had here in the United States in October of just these beautiful ring patterns under the trees. It was something so surreal and gorgeous that you really don't get to see all the time.

Jim Bell: No. Again, an unusual celestial occurrence. Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You've seen so many of these. Do you think you're ever going to get bored of the experience?

Jim Bell: No. A colleague, late colleague, Jay Pasachoff from Williams College who passed away recently, he started seeing eclipses and studying them as an astronomer back in the '50s, and I don't know how many he saw, dozens and dozens of them, and he said the same thing, everyone is different. He had all kinds of great advice for what to tell people to expect and all that. One of his best pieces of advice was that, you know, people show up with cameras and tripods and equipment and all that. To me, it is a wide angle human eye experience. I think people who've seen a lot of them, they get good at photographing them, and if we're traveling together, I'll just trust them to take great pictures and share them later. But for me, just open your eyes and take it in a wide angle way that cameras just can't do. So that was some of Jay's advice as well.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I agree. It's one of those moments, people say this when you're at, say, a concert or something, "Put down your phone, look at the concert experience, the moment." This is the most extreme version of that. Many people are going to be getting images of this, and it's going to take a lot of work and effort, but if you can avoid it, just actually be in the moment and stare up because it'll be something you will remember for the rest of time.

Jim Bell: Absolutely. Those seconds are precious when you're in that shadow and you don't want to spend them fumbling around with your camera, right? So yeah, I agree.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I said this in a previous show, but we are really, really lucky to be able to see these events on Earth. As you said earlier, the only reason we can actually observe total solar eclipses is because we're lucky enough to live in a place and a time where the moon and the sun are the same angular size on our sky. And you're an eclipse chaser here on Earth, but where I, an extraterrestrial listening to this conversation, I'll be coming to Earth right now. I feel like interstellar eclipse chasing is something that should probably exist out there somewhere.

Jim Bell: Absolutely, and it's interesting because those in the Mars rover world, we take movies of Phobos and Deimos eclipsing the sun and Mars, and they don't cover the sun. Phobos covers maybe a third, so it's not the same kind of thing. And then the moon is slowly spiraling away from the Earth because of tidal energy dissipation. It's slowly moving away. And so sometime in millions of years, there won't be any more total solar eclipses on the Earth. So we got to enjoy them while we can.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What would you say to the people who are still on the fence about going to this next total solar eclipse? Because I understand it's quite a privilege to have the time and the money to go do this, but I believe it is worth it. What do you think?

Jim Bell: Yeah, no, certainly if you can. It's a school day, so it's tough, but they don't come very often. There's not a good one in the U.S. for another 20 years, I think. Maybe 2045, if memory serves. And so this will be for folks in the U.S., one of the easiest ones to get to in a long time. So yeah, if you can find a way, go for it. And even if you can't get to that path of totality, just the path of a partial eclipse is going to cover much of the country. And so you can experience that with the glasses or with your local astronomy club and their telescopes or your local planetarium at the community college or the library, whatever. There'd be lots of ways to experience this or even online.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I've heard from some Planetary Society members that they don't live in the path of totality. So they're going to be experiencing the partial, but they're going to be tuning in for our live stream of the eclipse with Everyday Astronaut. So if anybody out there wants to watch that anywhere around the world, you can experience the eclipse with us because this is a moment for all of humanity to really kind of marvel at our place in space. This is not an opportunity that comes all the time.

Jim Bell: Absolutely.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I hope you have a really beautiful April 8th and that the weather treats you and everyone else kindly.

Jim Bell: You too. All of us. Yes. Yes. Enjoy.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Thanks so much, Jim. The newest edition of our quarterly magazine, The Planetary Report just dropped, and it's all about total solar eclipses. I'll put a link for it on the page for this episode of Planetary Radio. It's free to everyone on our website, but Planetary Society members will also receive a copy in their mailbox. Before we move on, I want to send a heartfelt thank you and our condolences to our partners at Betchart Expeditions. Sadly, Margaret Betchart, one of the founders and a great friend of The Planetary Society recently passed away. Thank you, Margaret, for everything that you did to help us share the wonders of the sky with people around the world. You will be missed. Now, let's check in with Dr. Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of The Planetary Society for What's Up. Bruce.

Bruce Betts: Sarah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We are less than a month away from this total solar eclipse in North America. I cannot believe it.

Bruce Betts: What? Wait, there's a total solar eclipse in North America?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: You didn't know?

Bruce Betts: That's so cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I'm so hype for this.

Bruce Betts: Yes, we are. Very exciting.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I keep flashing back to 2017 and what that moment was like for me and wondering how this is going to be different. I think being surrounded by Planetary Society members is really going to elevate the experience, but even back then, I was surrounded by space people that I loved. So I think sharing the moment is [inaudible 00:51:33]-

Bruce Betts: Oh, I was surrounded by 10,000 strangers that weren't space people parked in a field in Oregon, so this will be different.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It will be. This is going to be so awesome. We'll be at Eclipse-O-Rama. And we actually got a comment from one of our Planetary Society members and our member community that mentioned Eclipse-O-Rama coming up. Laura Monahan from California USA wrote in a comment about our previous episode on National Geographic documentary, The Space Race, and said it was wonderful to actually see The Space Race the other day and then listen to the interviews that we did. She says that she plans to visit Ed Dwight's African American History Museum in Texas after Eclipse-O-Rama, which is going to be really cool. I'm hoping that I'm going to get to bump into Laura and so many other Planetary Society members I haven't had a chance to meet yet because I'm going to have a little table in our activity tent so people can come by and say hi and record little bits of their eclipse experience with me.

Bruce Betts: How cool.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: What are you going to get up to at Eclipse-O-Rama?

Bruce Betts: Whatever I'm told to get up to. I'm hobbling through the fields and then giving talks about planetary defense, defending the Earth from asteroid impact and being involved somewhere around the time of the total eclipse and talking about that. So it should be groovy. Hopefully, it won't be cloudy.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Well, if that does happen, we'll be sad that we missed the actual eclipse itself. But this is going to be the largest gathering of Planetary Society members I've ever personally been to. So whether or not we actually get to see the eclipse, I cannot wait to listen to music with people and play board games and go to all the talks and hang out in the activity tents and do meet and greets.

Bruce Betts: No, it should be great no matter what. You're right.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Exactly. It's going to be a good time.

Bruce Betts: No matter what, it's a good time. Yeah.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Now, something I wasn't prepared for in 2017 when I was watching the eclipse was the idea that we were going to be able to actually see planets in the middle of the day when the eclipse happened. And there was a young man standing next to me who had prepared for this moment and knew exactly what planets were going to be out so he could point them out to people. So what planets should we keep an eye out for during this next one?

Bruce Betts: Good news, the two planets that are brightest in the sky, Venus and Jupiter, both in the sky and not that far off from the eclipse sun. So they should be presumably quite visible. They might be able to pick up some others, but those will be by far the easiest. And you'll be wanting to also look at the corona and all the dumbfounded faces around you, so you won't have as much time. But although I am looking forward to this... Totality is twice as long as it was in 2017, ballpark. I'm going to join with you on this one. This is worth a heck of a lot of excitement. Good stuff here.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: It's a cool collective moment too, because it's not just going to be us, it's going to be millions of people across three countries. Just everyone taking a moment to look up at the sky and really appreciate where we are in the universe. I don't know. That's just a level of comradery that I'm really looking forward. And maybe not the traffic jams afterwards, but you know, you win some, you lose them.

Bruce Betts: But at least Eclipse-O-Rama will have a lot of things that my Oregon random field didn't have, like a lot of bathrooms. Really that's it. That would've made it a lot better. So there are bathrooms and security and all the things that are less interesting until you really have to use them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And food.

Bruce Betts: And traffic should be better. I think we'll have people moving out on a more spread out basis I'm hoping because of the interest in general and what's going on, rather than, "Let's get out of here. Let's go find a bathroom."

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yeah, we'll all continue to hang out and party. I know there's going to be meet and greets after the eclipse, so there'll be reasons for people to hang out at Eclipse-O-Rama afterwards, while the rest of the world tries to drive back home.

Bruce Betts: You're going to love it everyone, everywhere.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: But the people though that will be far away, at least will be able to tune into live streams. We'll have one through Everyday Astronaut, but I think people all across these three countries are going to be sharing this as much as they can with the rest of the world.

Bruce Betts: And you get a partial eclipse, which is still very cool. Not nearly as cool, but very cool. Those countries, not elsewhere in the world, but anywhere in the world, you can tune into the live stream if you got that pesky internet thing.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: And we do have article that I believe you helped put together many years ago that's about all the upcoming total solar eclipses for the next 10 years. So if you do live in another country, you're not going to experience this one, you can take a look at that article. I'll link it on this page for this episode of Planetary Radio, so you can make plans, because who knows? Maybe you live in Africa or the Middle East or somewhere in Asia. This will happen near you at some point in your lifetime and you got to go see one.

Bruce Betts: Sarah, would you like to hear something?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I would.

Bruce Betts: A little bit of [inaudible 00:56:29]? So you've probably wondered to yourself, what is the record largest or specifically most massive payload ever sent to orbit?

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Now, I am curious.

Bruce Betts: Ah, good. Apollo, the Apollo Lunar Payload, command module, service module, lunar module, fuel, and another stage in the whole thing if you include the third stage and fuel for Earth orbit departure, 140 tons, or for those in some one place, 310,000 pounds.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: I wonder how the Artemis program is going to rank against that in the future.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, similar, but it depends a lot. They've got a whole growth pattern of different block stages, and so they get more powerful.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: That's cool.

Bruce Betts: And also Starship, if that stops blowing up, has them.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Sometimes you got to crack a few eggs.

Bruce Betts: Wow. We see the other side of Sarah. The eclipse is just so cool, but sometimes you have to crack a few eggs.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: Yep. That's basically me in an eggshell.

Bruce Betts: All right, everybody go out there, look up in the night sky and think about cracking eggs very carefully with Sarah watching you. Thank you and good night.

Sarah Al-Ahmed: We've reached the end of this week's episode of Planetary Radio, but we'll be back next week with Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for NASA OSIRIS-REx Mission as he shares his new book, The Asteroid Hunter. Love the show? You can get Planetary Radio t-shirts at, along with lots of other cool spacey merchandise. You can help others discover the passion, beauty, and joy of space science and exploration by leaving your review and a rating on platforms like Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Your feedback not only brightens our day, but 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 space loving members. You can join us as we continue to support space exploration and the joy that it brings to people around our planet 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.