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Eclipse one of many near, far-future celestial events

Eclipse one of many near, far-future celestial events

August 21st, 2017 by Phillip Sitter in Local News

Sam Orr examines a solar telescope before looking into it, while Maks Protzman peers into one Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 during solar eclipse festivities at the Capitol. The telescopes were one of the activities sponsored by the Jefferson City High School Astronomy Club.

Photo by Gerry Tritz /News Tribune.

Missourians are no strangers to out-of-the-ordinary sights in the heavens, and in time there will be many more to come.

The last total solar eclipse visible in the Jefferson City area was in 1257. It wasn't the first time the people of the Mississippian culture that lived in what's now Missouri had witnessed such an event.

Rusty Weisman said the path of today's eclipse "is almost identical to that of the path of the (A.D.) 941 eclipse." Weisman is a senior historic preservation specialist with the Missouri Department of Transportation's Environmental and Historic Preservation Section.

The Nov. 21, 941, celestial event more than 1,000 years ago captured the imaginations of Mississippian tribes, as they carved eclipse-like motifs into rock at about a half-dozen sites along that eclipse's path.

Weisman said there were five total eclipses during the Mississippian period, corroborated by historical records from Asia. "In addition to rock art, what appear to be solar eclipse-related images also occur on (a) variety of other Mississippian objects — engraved shell, copper and painted and incised ceramics," he said.

According to the Illinois State Museum, "archaeologists believe Mississippian people divided their world into three parts: the upper world, the middle world and the underworld. The upper world includes the sun, that which gives life. The middle world is the world we live in on earth. The lower world is the source of fertility, among other things."

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Scientific inquiry has confirmed that the sun's warm light does give life — and eclipses too in the shadows of the objects it illuminates. Astronomy foretells that there's a lot more set to take place in the upper world, too.

In terms of eclipses, some in Missouri won't have to wait too long, according to GreatAmericanEclipse.com. Residents of the southeastern part of the state and those willing to drive a few hours will have the opportunity to witness another total solar eclipse April 8, 2024.

That eclipse's path of totality will sweep up into the United States from Mexico, and move northeast across Texas into Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and New York before continuing.

That will be the last local eclipse opportunity for some time. Other parts of the United States will see solar eclipses in 2045, 2052, 2078, 2079 and 2099. Today's event in all likelihood will be a once-in-a-lifetime event for many of its observers.

Frank Reddy is a senior science writer with NASA, and he offered a preview of some other coming sights in the cosmos.

Earth's planetary neighbors of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus will be at opposition on various dates through 2018-20. Opposition is when a planet is closest and brightest to observers on Earth.

"I'm not aware of any especially bright comets predicted, but the bright ones usually aren't those we already know about," Reddy said in an email. A link he shared — aerith.net/comet/future-n.html — lists when and where in the sky certain comets will be observable, as well as when they'll be brightest through July 2022.

Will those majestic comets and other objects stay up in the sky? For the most part, for now, the answer is yes.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Sentry System monitors the most current asteroids and assesses the probability any of them might impact Earth. The next asteroid listed on Sentry's website as due for a close pass is 2017 MZ8. It's about 3 1/2 football fields wide and slow-moving by asteroid standards at a steady clip of about 6 miles a second.

Assuming 2017 MZ8 is made of dense rock as opposed to loose rock or iron — and it were to impact a sedimentary rock-based soil like Missouri's limestone at an angle of 45 degrees — it would release an amount of explosive energy 620 times greater than that of the atomic bomb the United States detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. It's no dinosaur-killer copycat, but the impact would form a crater almost three-quarters of a mile wide and over 800 feet deep, according to the free online Impact Earth! calculator that's a joint project of Purdue University and Imperial College London.

No need to worry, however; the Sentry System estimates the odds of 2017 MZ8 impacting Earth on Oct. 18, 2020, at 1 in 220 million.

It's far more likely skygazers will have the random chance to witness a fireball, the explosion of a smaller meteor in the atmosphere after the object fragments under the heat and pressure of the friction exerted against it. JPL's fireball and bolide data from U.S. government sensors show such events have happened about every one to three weeks usually, though most of the time over the oceans or other sparsely populated areas and at high altitudes.

Long term, the odds of the planet averting a collision with a larger asteroid or comet are not in humanity's favor, but the frequency of such an event highlights just how big the scope of time is on a cosmic scale, and gives insight into other sights in the sky.

Earth likely will have been hit by a 1-kilometer-wide asteroid within the next half-million years, according to a timeline published by the BBC in 2014, based on data from various publications and scientific sources. But that's just the beginning of the long march of time.

In 1 million years, the supernova explosion of the Betelgeuse red supergiant star likely will be easily visible in daylight on Earth. In 1.45 million years, another star will pass close enough to the solar system to possibly knock some comets out of their usual orbits and send them in Earth's general direction.

In 600 million years, total solar eclipses like today's will be impossible because the moon will have drifted too far away to cast its shadow on the surface of the Earth.

It's probably fair to say the Mississippians who saw an eclipse in Missouri more than a millennium ago could not imagine the capabilities of astronomers and physicists today to project into the far future.

If all of that offers any perspective on today's rare gift of the upper world, it's this: grab some approved solar eclipse-viewing glasses, go out and enjoy the sky's show.