Once in 99 Years, The Eclipse of (Nearly) a Century

Our Interconnected Planet

Come next Monday, Aug. 21, the world will be focused on a swath of the United States about 70 miles wide. Over the course of 90 or so minutes, the shadow of the Moon will careen across the United States at supersonic speeds (2,400 mph), and cross the entire country from just north of Newport, Oregon, to just beyond McClellanville, South Carolina. See map. It will be entirely contained within the continental U.S., unlike the last solar eclipse in America (1918!) that tippled across a couple of Bahamian islands. If you are curious as to how the eclipse will appear in your neck of the woods, you can type in your zip code and watch the simulation.

If you happen to be fortunate enough to be in Nashville, TN, that city represents the eclipse’s sweet spot; where people will get the best view. They will experience more than two minutes of the event, which is a once in a lifetime experience for any eclipse. If you lucky enough to find yourself anywhere in the eclipse’s path, watch for surreal things including: silver colors, the sudden vanishing of breezes, the rapid onset of darkness as the Moon’s umbral (inner) shadow arrives, false twilight and narrow shadows. Can you hear the theme song from the Twilight Zone…?

This particular eclipse has astronomers and researchers running full tilt for their telescopes and supercomputers because it is very rare that eclipses have such a long, uninterrupted pathway across a single mass of land. That longevity is what is going to permit the kind of intensive scientific research that scientists live for – if they are lucky enough to experience it even once in their career. This eclipse, for astronomers, promises to be a game changer.

For Monday’s event, scientists are going to be studying a myriad of phenomena.  They will be trying to gain a better understanding of the complex relationship between the sun’s magnetic field and its corona which might help us take better precautions against the dangers of anomalous space weather.  Another set of scientists are actually going to be flying in a gulf stream jet that’s been modified to perform high altitude atmospheric research, complete with computers on board and a telescope pointed out the window. While cruising into the eclipse path above Kentucky, researchers are hoping to image the corona in infrared light. This is not possible from land-based observations because our atmosphere’s water absorbs a lot of infrared light. Since this has to be done from a moving high-altitude observatory anyway, in this case, a jet, their velocity actually adds a precious minute to the time they will be able to observe the event.

And it’s not just astronomers who are getting in the act. The Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse) Experiment has the goal of capturing images of the inner solar corona using a network of more than 60 telescopes operated by citizen scientists, high school groups and universities. The goal of CATE is to produce a scientifically unique data set: a high-resolution, rapid cadence white light images of the inner corona for 90 minutes.

All of this is exciting enough for the Science channel to dedicate resources and broadcast the event live so if you are not studying space weather, chasing the eclipse from the upper atmosphere, or spending the day in Nashville, you can still experience this history as it unfolds.

After all this excitement dies down, the real work begins with Big Data analysis, complex calculations and algorithms and this is where Mellanox comes in. Many of our customers, such as the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), support thousands of researchers with high performance computing capabilities. Imagine one day not so long ago at SDSC, while they were running LIGO (laser interferometer wave observatory). LIGO’s mission is to try and detect gravity waves as they come from space through earth. Suddenly, they detected an anomalous wave and suspected it was actually the result of two black holes colliding; but how to prove such a profound notion?  Such a phenomenon had never even been detected before and the algorithms required to sort this out required large-scale computing capabilities. SDSC’s Supercomputer Comet, with Mellanox’s virtual cluster interface, was the answer. The need to support parallel applications and parallel computations in a virtual environment was solved through the use of single root IO virtualization (SR-IOV) which was developed by Mellanox. Basically, this solution allows computation to go directly from the network to the virtual machine, without passing go, or collecting $200. This translated into the same high performance as running on the bare metal hardware. And by leveraging Mellanox technology to offload all of the network processing, the virtual CPUs could spend all of their time sorting out the question posed by scientists, was it really two black holes colliding?  The interstellar event was recreated by scientists virtually through simulation in their own lab and the results were groundbreaking. An exact correlation between the observed and simulated signals allowed scientists to determine that yes, the origin of the wave actually came from two black holes colliding. More here.

As I follow along and witness this amazing, once in 99-year event, my thoughts will be trained not only on the skies above where this amazing astronomical event will take place, but I will also be thinking about the hard work, the analysis and potential discoveries that will be realized back here on earth, knowing that this is where Mellanox has made, and will continue to make, a profound difference in the scientific community and Our Interconnected Planet.

We also have a fun video about astronomical discovery to make your day:


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About Julie M. Dibene

Julieanne DiBene is the Senior Director of Marketing Communications at Mellanox. Prior to this, she was the Director of Marketing Communications with Micrel Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from San Jose State University.

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