Here comes the sun, the eclipsed version

Before modern astronomers and mathematicians figured out how to accurately predict solar eclipses, the extinction of the sun sparked terror. The god Zeus turned midday into night, the ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote of a 647 B.C. eclipse, “and sore fear came upon men.” Thanks to science, we can now skip the fear and go straight to awe. And on April 8, millions of people across North America will be treated to an awe-inspiring view.

In fact, almost 32 million people in the United States alone live in the zone of totality for next month’s solar eclipse. The path runs from northern Mexico through the United States and then to southeastern Canada. As luck would have it, this will be an extra-special, superduper eclipse. If skies are clear, viewers will be treated to a blackout of nearly 4.5 minutes. That’s almost two minutes longer than the August 2017 eclipse, which was the last total solar eclipse to pass over North America.

And the sun will be close to solar maximum, when its activity is greatest, so observers may see bright streamers of plasma and perhaps even a coronal mass ejection, freelance writer James R. Riordon reports. Scientists are poised to make the most of this special eclipse to investigate a wide range of questions, Riordon writes, including how the sun’s radiation generates the Earth’s ionosphere and what gives rise to zippy solar winds — an important question for predicting the space weather that can disrupt communications and power grids on Earth.

Needless to say, we here at Science News have been looking forward to this eclipse since the 2017 one brushed by us. Back then, our staffers trekked from our office in Washington, D.C., to the National Mall, joining throngs of people enjoying a partial view of the eclipse. D.C. won’t be in totality this year, either, but we’ll get more than two hours of partial eclipse. Because the path of totality sweeps across so much of the United States, it’s a great year for eclipse tourism. More than a few Science Newsers are planning to travel to catch the full show.

I may be a bit late for that. I just checked hotel listings in the path of totality, and a Holiday Inn Express in Painesville, Ohio, on Lake Erie, would cost me $1,899 a night. So I’ll be content with the partial view at home.

Also in this issue, astronomy writer Adam Mann gets the latest on the space rocks collected from asteroid Bennu and delivered to Earth last year by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Much to researchers’ consternation, difficulties opening the sample canister kept their prize out of reach for months. It took clever work-arounds and making a new kind of ratchet wrench for them to get the job done. And do check out molecular biology and senior writer Tina Hesman Saey’s report on how ancient viruses helped make our sophisticated human brains possible and freelance writer Simon Makin’s story on a new technology that let a person with a prosthetic hand sense hot and cold. Science never ceases to amaze me in its ability to surprise and delight.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.