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Solar eclipses were once extremely terrifying events, experts say

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When the Aztecs experienced a total solar eclipse, the wailing began.

After all, the moon had eclipsed the almighty sun, transforming it into an ominous onyx eye.

Then there were a tumult and disorder. All were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. There was weeping. The common folk raised a cry, lifting their voices, making a great din, calling out, shrieking. There was shouting everywhere.

These are translations from the early ethnographer Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a friar who meticulously recorded Aztec culture and history in the 1500s. Human sacrifices ensued, Sahagún noted, an attempt to feed the sun invaluable energy from these bodies.

And in all the temples there was the singing of fitting chants; there was an uproar; there were war cries. It was thus said: “If the eclipse of the sun is complete, it will be dark forever! The demons of darkness will come down; they will eat men.”

Not all cultures feared eclipses. Some, like the Navajo, viewed an eclipse as a time for reflection and renewal. But fear was awfully common across the globe. It’s an understandable sentiment; for those today who stand in the shadow of a rare solar eclipse — like the many millions with the chance on April 8, 2024 — the exciting experience can also feel awfully strange, if not disquieting. A constant in our lives, our radiant star, turns black and reveals its ghostly corona, or atmosphere.

“It was profoundly unsettling to have this black hole in the sky,” Melissa Barden Dowling, a Roman historian at Southern Methodist University, told Mashable. “Losing the sun would be just terrifying.”

For many peoples, a total solar eclipse was profoundly terrifying because they believed in an animate universe where earthly or cosmic happenings were divine communication (these common worldviews existed in places like ancient China, India, Mesoamerica, the Mediterranean, and beyond). “It was rooted in the idea that the gods spoke to us through the natural world,” Dowling said.

There is one long-lived culture that has a notable absence of solar eclipse accounts in its widespread art and text: ancient Egypt. This surprises Dowling, yet it’s telling. Mind you, this was a society that for thousands of years worshiped the falcon-headed sun god, Ra, who was considered a divine father of many pharaohs. But in ancient Egypt there was a general avoidance of the eclipsed sun. “There’s no serious attempt to record solar eclipses in the material that survived,” Dowling noted.

A plausible reason? “It was too dangerous to depict,” she said.


The demons of darkness will come down; they will eat men.

It’s difficult to know what every culture thought of such a dramatic event. But descriptions often weren’t rosy. Thousands of years ago, in 1200 B.C.E., scribes in Anyang, China, recorded solar eclipse events on bones. “The Sun has been eaten,” they wrote.

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Following a total solar eclipse, prominent Aztec warriors would hold all-night vigils. They quaffed maize beer, explained Adam Herring, a historian at Southern Methodist University specializing in the pre-Columbian Americas. The warriors grew drunk with their military brethren. “They showed solidarity for the greatest of all warriors, the sun god, in his time of need,” Herring said.

Indeed, the Aztec sun god was often beset with threats in the darkness, when malevolent gods would come out. It’s one reason why Aztecs would sacrifice human lives — to release energy from bodies and offer them to the sun god. A total eclipse, however, unleashed perhaps the greatest of cosmic struggles for the sun god, as the deity’s resplendence was extinguished in broad daylight.

A petroglyph from Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, appearing to show a total solar eclipse.

A petroglyph from Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, appearing to show a total solar eclipse.
Credit: National Park Service

A total solar eclipse photographed in August 2017.

A total solar eclipse photographed in August 2017.
Credit: NASA / Gopalswamy

It’s little surprise advanced cultures like the Aztecs were suspicious of the dark, like pre-Industrial cultures around the world. In Western folklore, the deepest of night, the “witching hour,” is when evil beings gather their strength and lurk among us.

“Nighttime is a very troubling time,” Herring said. “It’s cold, dark, and dangerous.” Especially when it strikes unexpectedly.

Yet even knowing a solar eclipse is coming doesn’t smother the fear. The Maya devised intricate eclipse tables, showing when an eclipse was possible. “That was worked out with incredible intricacy and ingenuity and persistent, dogged observation over centuries,” Herring marveled. The Maya even predicted an eclipse that happened in July 1991, many centuries in advance.

Still, the Maya dreaded totality. “They were feared events viewed and based on the Maya cosmovision as the struggle of the Sun and the Moon, day and night, or the good and the bad,” explained the Heritage Education Network Belize, an organization preserving Belizean history and culture. “This phenomena was seen as a bad omen, but also as a closure and as a sign of renewal.”


It’s cold, dark, and dangerous.

As humanity’s space and astronomical knowledge evolved, eclipses have grown less ominous — though not completely so. During the 2017 total solar eclipse, among gasps I heard unsettled cries across the high Oregon desert. In her seminal 1982 essay Total Eclipse, Annie Dillard reported hearing rattled people staring up at the eclipsed sun. “From all the hills came screams,” she wrote.

By the 1800s, the astronomers made it widely known that these eclipses were caused by an enthralling, though not dreadful, cosmic dance. Take this excerpt from the Mexican publication La voz de la religión, on July 24, 1852, before such an eclipse:

The total eclipse is also a spectacle that deserves to call anyone’s attention… it looks like the unraveling of nature’s well-arranged order… [But] it is possible to calculate with the greatest precision the movements of celestial bodies. Now, eclipses, far from scaring people, have become for them an object of curiosity.

Times had turned. “The mood changes from fear to curiosity,” Amílcar E. Challú, a historian of Mexico and Latin America at Bowling Green State University who translated both the quote above and that at the start of this article, told Mashable. Challú is also one of the creators of the podcast Eclipsing History.

An engraving showing people in Bekul, Southern India, in 1871, expressing unease during a solar eclipse. A British expedition watches the event in a fort above.

An engraving showing people in Bekul, Southern India, in 1871, expressing unease during a solar eclipse. A British expedition watches the event in a fort above.
Credit: Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Six pages of the Mayan book called the Dresden Codex, which includes astronomical and eclipse information.

Six pages of the Mayan book called the Dresden Codex, which includes astronomical and eclipse information.
Credit: SLUB Dresden

Later, in 1908, The Mexican Herald gave recommendations to readers for how to witness a looming total eclipse. Some 500 people would take a train an hour north from Mexico City to experience the event, Challú, who hosts the podcast Eclipsing History, explained.

In modern day, eclipse chasers travel all over Earth to catch these cosmic spectacles. And on April 8, 2024, people will drive or fly hundreds to thousands of miles to peer at the dark star.

It’s worth it. “It’s most fun to experience with other people, because of the surprise, and the awe,” the Roman historian Dowling said.

But it might be a bit unsettling, too. We’re still human, after all.





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NASA To Make Major Announcement On Its Ambitious Mars Sample Return Mission Today; Watch Live

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NASA is hosting a press conference on April 15 for a big announcement regarding its Mars Sample Return Mission. The agency said that the speakers will discuss the next steps of the mission aimed at retrieving samples collected by the Perseverance rover on Mars at 10:30 pm IST. The speakers include NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson and Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, Nicky Fox.

You can watch the teleconference live at NASA TV and its official website here. The discussion will be based on the report by the Independent Review Board which was set up in 2023 to evaluate the technical, cost, and schedule plans prior to confirmation of the mission’s design.

ALSO SEE: NASA Shares Views Of Perseverance Rover’s Sample Collection In Latest Milestone On Mars

The Mars sample return program, apart from its complexities, has a major problem to deal with – a supposedly ‘unrealistic’ budget. Ever since its landing in the Jezero crater on Mars, the Perseverance rover has collected two dozen soil and rock samples which are waiting to be shipped to Earth early next decade.

The samples are being collected because scientists believe they might have signs of ancient life on the red planet since it used to have oceans billions of years ago.

According to NASA’s plan, it will send a lander with a rocket to Mars which will transfer the samples to an orbiter built by ESA. This orbiter will then send the samples back to Earth. All this is expected to cost between $8 to $11 billion, the review board said in its report released last September. In the upcoming announcement, NASA might clear the air regarding the feasibility of the mission and if it is worth pursuing.

ALSO SEE: What Does A Solar Eclipse On Mars Look Like? NASA Answers With Breathtaking Views





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Mess Created By NASA Will Be Inspected By ESA’s Hera Mission; Here’s All About It

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is gearing up for an ambitious mission called Hera, set to launch in October 2024. The mission’s target will be Dimorphos, an asteroid orbiting the larger space rock Didymos.

Dimorphos gained international attention when it became the subject of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. On September 26, 2022, NASA’s spacecraft intentionally collided with Dimorphos to test whether altering its orbit was a viable method of planetary defense.

Now, ESA’s Hera mission is poised to rendezvous with Dimorphos in 2026, building on the groundwork laid by DART. The objectives are ambitious: Hera will delve into the Didymos binary asteroid system, conducting the very first assessment of its internal properties. Additionally, it will meticulously analyse the aftermath of DART’s kinetic impactor test, including studying the crater left behind by the collision.

Hera represents a significant milestone in asteroid deflection technology, paving the way for future planetary defense strategies. By conducting a detailed post-impact survey of Dimorphos, Hera aims to transform the DART mission into a well-understood and repeatable defense technique.

ALSO SEE: NASA’s DART Mission’s Second Observer Captures Unsettling Images Of An Asteroid Crash

What makes Hera even more groundbreaking is its role as humankind’s first probe to rendezvous with a binary asteroid system. It will also be armed with innovative technologies, including autonomous navigation and low-gravity proximity operations.

Using ground-based telescopes, scientists know that DART changed Dimorphos’s velocity but they need a close-up inspection to determine the change in its mass. The HERA mission also includes two cubesats – Milani and Juventas – that will collectively investigate Dimorphos’s composition and change in its properties.

NASA ruled the DART mission a success after the spacecraft was able to change Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos by 33 minutes. Scientists believe that this technology could one day help us deflect a planet-killing asteroid if one heads toward Earth someday.

ALSO SEE: Collision Of NASA’s DART With Asteroid Dimorphos Changed Its Shape; Finding Excites Scientists





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Unexpected Discovery In A Nebula 3,800 Light-Years Away Leaves Astronomers Surprised

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Astronomers peering into the depths of space have stumbled upon a celestial spectacle unlike any other – a stellar pair locked in a cosmic dance, surrounded by a mesmerizing cloud of gas and dust. But what sets this duo, dubbed HD 148937, apart from the stellar crowd is a remarkable tale of cosmic collision and rebirth.

Located a staggering 3800 light-years away in the Norma constellation, HD 148937 is home to two stars of immense magnitude, each boasting a mass far surpassing that of our Sun.

Yet, upon closer inspection, astronomers were met with a perplexing revelation – these stars, once thought to be twins, harbor striking differences. One star appears 1.5 million years younger and inexplicably magnetic, while its counterpart bears the marks of age and lacks magnetic allure.

Utilizing data collected over nine years from cutting-edge instruments like PIONIER, GRAVITY, and FEROS, astronomers uncovered a violent history. The evidence pointed to a tumultuous past, wherein three stars once roamed the system, until two stars collided, birthing the stunning nebula that now envelops HD 148937.

ALSO SEE: NASA’s Hubble Telescope Captures ‘Fierce And Fabulous’ Tarantula Nebula Brimming With Baby Stars

“The two inner stars merged in a violent manner, creating a magnetic star and throwing out some material, which created the nebula,” professor Hugues Sana, lead investigator explained in an official statement.

This cosmic ballet not only reshaped the system’s destiny but also shed light on a longstanding mystery in astronomy – the origin of magnetic fields in massive stars. While magnetic fields are common in stars like our Sun, their presence in more massive counterparts has long puzzled astronomers. The discovery of HD 148937 provides compelling evidence that such magnetic fields can arise from stellar mergers, a phenomenon observed only in theory until now.

“Magnetism in massive stars isn’t expected to last very long compared to the lifetime of the star, so it seems we have observed this rare event very soon after it happened,” said Abigail Frost, lead author of the new paper published in the journal Science.

ALSO SEE: ESO’s Very Large Telescope Captures ‘Gloomy Portrait’ Of Cone Nebula, A Staggering Star Factory





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