Science

North America's first total solar eclipse since 2008 and more cool science for 2017

The best solar eclipse in years, advances in self-driving cars, and space-faring missions: the year ahead is going to be an exciting one.

Get out and grab your eclipse glasses for the best event of the year

One of the most anticipated events of 2017 will be a total solar eclipse across North America. (David Gray/Reuters)

There was a lot going on in science in 2016. 

In space, we had the arrival of Juno in orbit around Jupiter. SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket, opening the door for cheaper and possibly more frequent space travel. And scientists arrived at a better understanding of how our universe formed with the confirmation of gravitational waves.

So what's ahead?

While there's no telling what discoveries lie in wait for scientists, there are a few things to keep an eye on in the coming year.

Climate: Another hot year? 

For two years in a row — and a third if the last couple of weeks of 2016 continue — the planet has been running a fever.

"Unless the December global temperature is 0.25 C (0.41 F) or less above the 20th century monthly average, 2016 will at least tie 2015 as the warmest year in the 137-year record," says Brady Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Brady says that he wasn't surprised with the warmth in 2016, as the environment was influenced by "gradual global warming from human-induced climate change, which in the last two years, was greatly boosted by a very strong El Nino."

The question is whether this is a trend that will carry over into 2017.

This map illustrates land and ocean warmth across the globe for October 2016. The past two years have been the warmest on record across the planet. (NASA)

On Dec. 20, the United Kingdom's Met Office said that 2017 will likely be another warm one — but not necessarily a record-breaker.

"This forecast … adds weight to our earlier prediction that 2017 will be very warm globally but is unlikely to exceed 2015 and 2016: the two warmest years on record since 1850," said head of long-range prediction at the Met Office in a statement about the upcoming year.

August solar eclipse

On Aug. 21, North America will be treated to what is undoubtedly the most anticipated astronomical event of the year: a total solar eclipse.

The eclipse stretches from the West Coast straight through to the East, with the prime viewing locations cutting in a curved path from Oregon to South Carolina.

A total solar eclipse is seen in Luwuk, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. North America will see a total eclipse August 21. (Irmansyah/Associated Press)

"It will be the story of the summer," says Randy Attwood, executive director with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

This will be the first total eclipse in North America since 2008. "Millions of people will see their first eclipse," Attwood said. 

What's more, this will be the first eclipse where social media is such a part of our daily lives. People across North America are likely to be able to see the eclipse before it starts with live feeds, Instagram, Twitter and more.

And what's great about this event is that it takes place in the summer, a time not only of warm weather but of typically clearer skies than winter.

This map shows the the path of the August 21, 2016 total solar eclipse. (CBC News)

If you can't get to the so called path of totality, there's no worry: Canadians will see at least part of the eclipse — from 90 per cent on Vancouver Island to 20 per cent in the Arctic.

For most major Canadian cities, you'll see anywhere from 40 per cent in St. John's, Nfld., to around 75 per cent in Toronto and around 80 per cent in Calgary and Regina.

If you want to see the eclipse in Canada, which will be partial, do not look directly at the sun. Instead, you'll need eclipse glasses. Be sure to try to grab a pair well in advance from a local astronomical association so you don't miss the chance to see the spectacular event for yourself.

An eclipse occurs as the moon passes between the sun and Earth. It just so happens that, seen in the sky, both the sun and the moon — despite the vast difference in distance — measure exactly 0.5 degrees. (Remember your geometry.)

Every so often, when the moon passes in front of the sun, it blocks out the light entirely. While it's a beautiful sight, it also provides astronomers with the opportunity to study the sun's outer atmosphere, called the corona. In fact, it helped prove one part of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.

Self-driving cars

While George Jetson may have got us excited about flying cars, it seems that we're all about self-driving cars. In 2016, we saw Google self-driving cars and even Uber autonomous vehicles take to the roads. 

Uber's prototype self-driving car is seen here in Pittsburgh. (Uber)

Ross McKenzie works with autonomous vehicle testing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. They were the first to be allowed to test these vehicles on public roads.

"What you saw through 2016 was a clear manifestation of autonomous vehicles moving beyond concept … into a state now where this is not just going to happen, this is happening."

McKenzie said that 2017 will see more manufacturers road-testing driverless cars as well as more partnerships between car and tech companies.

While we may not have those flying cars just yet, McKenzie brings up a pretty good point.

"George Jetson still had to drive his flying car."

SpaceX

With the first successful landing of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, the company seems to be on the road to ushering in a new, affordable way of space travel.

In this May 27, 2016, photo made available by SpaceX, the company's Falcon rocket booster lands on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean after launching a satellite into orbit. (SpaceX/Associated Press)

This year Elon Musk's private rocket venture promises bigger and better, with the launch of its Falcon 9 Heavy. This rocket is poised to be the largest, most powerful rocket in production, and certainly since the Saturn V of the Apollo years.

SpaceX has delayed the launch, after the loss shortly after liftoff of a Falcon 9 that was on its way to the International Space Station.

However, SpaceX announced Monday it would launch another Falcon 9 on Jan. 8, holding out the possibility for cheaper space flight.

"A lot of this is just based on successes and failures," said Attwood. "But they have a good chance."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

now