Susan Wismer and Mike Myers go to Sioux Falls tonight to debate Governor Dennis Daugaard on KELO-TV for his job. Rick Weiland, Larry Pressler, Gordon Howie, and Mike Rounds go to Vermillion tomorrow night for their first big broadcast Senate debate.

Partial solar eclipse, animation of lunar penumbra and terminator, October 23, 2014. From NASA!

Partial solar eclipse, animation of lunar penumbra and terminator, October 23, 2014. From NASA! (Time in UTC; subtract 5 hours for Central, 6 for Mou

The gods evidently see more portent in the Senate debate; they are throwing a pre-game eclipse party! The new moon's shadow hits Kamchatka at their Friday dawn, then slides across Alaska, Canada, the Lower 48, and Mexico throughout our Thursday.

According to the United States Naval Observatory, the partial eclipse begins in Vermillion at 4:23 p.m. Central, and maxes out just after 5:36 p.m., when the moon will obscure just about 49% of the sun. The moon will still be taking a bite out of the sun when the sun sets at 6:33 p.m. Predicted cloud cover for Vermillion tomorrow p.m.: 14%–17%.

Out in Spearfish, the eclipse begins just before 3:10 p.m. Mountain, just in time for the kids to get out of school and see all the freaky shadow effects. Spearfish eclipse max is at 4:28 p.m. Mountain with 53% solar obscuration. The moon scoots past the sun completely at 5:38, about 22 minutes before Spearfish sunset. Predicted cloud cover: 28%–33%.

Go see the eclipse (but how many times do we have to tell you: don't look directly at the sun!), then see who eclipses whom at the SDPB Senate debate!

Bonus Third-Grade Science/Halloween Humor:

—How does a deaf astronomer know what ghosts are saying?
—She reads the eek-lips.

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The Sun is our friend: vitamin D, solar power, and photosynthesis, the basis of life as we know it.

But Black Hills science writer Stan Gibilisco points out that the Sun is dangerous. He's not talking about wrinkles; he's talking about coronal mass ejections:

Quick correction: the solar storm to which Gibilisco refers was reported on this month, but it appears to have taken place in July 2012.

I'd call coronal mass ejections star farts—NASA refers to them as "giant bubbles of gas... ejected from the Sun"—but that appellation might trivialize the civilization-busting power of such storms. International insurer Lloyd's takes coronal mass ejections seriously; so should we all. Gibilisco thinks we ought to harden our electronic infrastructure to prevent a coronal mass ejection from shutting down GPS, satellites, the Internet, and the national power grid for weeks or months:

Among other preparations, we could brace for coronal mass ejections by stockpiling large power transformers to replace those that a strong solar storm would fry. Large power transformers cost $2.5 million to $7 million to manufacture, plus maybe 30% overhead to ship and install. Multiply by 2100, and you have a cost of $15 billion. That's no small expenditure... but during the last decade, were spending that much defending American interests in Iraq every 21 days.

But the electric utilities don't have a CME-response stockpile of large power transformers, because free-market competition stops them from preparing for disaster:

A major problem with protecting the national power grid is that it consists of 2100 high voltage transformers run by an assortment of 5000 or so independent entities. One speaker (Dr. Michael Gregg) estimated that it would require a relatively few million dollars to protect some valuable components of the electric power system. However, following these remarks, it came to light during the discussion session that such a measure has lacked support owing to legal and business constraints by these 5000 entities in competition with one another. It probably goes without saying that politicians are not going to enter that fray. Nor would they be willing to budget the much greater expense of acquiring and storing backup high voltage transformers. The threat to nuclear power plants (see: Are nuclear reactors vulnerable to solar storms?) was hardly mentioned [Steve Tracton, "Are We Ready for Potentially Disastrous Impacts of Space Weather?" Washington Post: Capital Weather Gang, 2012.07.11].

Our failure thus far to respond to Gibilisco's call for sensible solar storm preparation is one of the impacts of partisan gridlock and anti-science sentiment in Congress. Dust-ups about EPA efforts to regulate carbon emissions have tangled passage of the NASA budget. Members of Congress don't go on Fox to rail against the Sun, because science-based warnings that the Sun will wreck modern civilization don't raise nearly as much campaign money as Limbaugh-parroting cries that Candidate X is a Barack Obama Marxist waging war on coal.

If the next big coronal mass ejection hits the earth, who made the most profit on utility stocks and who raised the most campaign donations will instantly become irrelevant. Power companies and Congress need to think a bit more on the cosmic scale and protect our modern civilization from the threats Old Sol throws at us.

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The unexplained spidery objects on the surface of Mars may dampen your enthusiasm for interplanetary exploration. ("Spider" should not appear in any "Visit Wonderful Planet X" brochure.)

Let these views from the International Space Station re-whet your appetite.

No big deal at the top of the picture. Just aurora. Dancing.

Related: Really smart people at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are working on fusion-powered impulse engines for spaceships... just like on the Enterprise. The engineers even use the word "dilithium crystals." Oh my.

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A Facebook pal commented on the election results in Wisconsin. I replied that I hadn't even raised my periscope to look outside the South Dakota primary yet.

I should have raised my telescope.

Yesterday Venus passed directly between the Earth and the Sun. The transit of Venus happens roughly twice a century. It won't happen again until December 10&ndash11, 2117. You and I probably won't see that. Click Play again.

Venus is about the size of Earth, shy of 8,000 miles across. Venus was about 27 million miles away from us yesterday. The sun, 93 million miles away from us, is a giant nuclear fire 865,000 miles across.

The above images were captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, launched in 2010 on a five-year mission to study the sun and its effect on space weather. Your tax dollars at work... and yes, we should pay taxes for wonder.

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Maybe President Newt Gingrich wouldn't be so bad after all... if he'd really take us back to the moon:

During a campaign event on Florida's Space Coast — hard-hit by the recession and the space program's uncertain future — Gingrich talked about coming of age at the time of Sputnik, the first satellite, launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union. He recalled reading science-fiction author Isaac Asimov and Missiles and Rockets magazine.

"I come at space from a standpoint of a romantic belief that it really is part of our destiny, and it has been tragic to see what has happened to our space program over the last 30 years," Gingrich said Wednesday in a crowded hotel ballroom in Cocoa, not far from the Kennedy Space Center.

...If elected, Gingrich promised, "by the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American."

Gingrich said he would encourage commercial activities in space, including science, tourism and manufacturing. And he promises, in about eight years, a rocket capable of reaching Mars [Brian Naylor, "On Florida's Space Coast, Gingrich Aims for the Moon," NPR.org, 2012.01.26].

To the moon, Callista! (By the way, Callisto is a moon of Jupiter the size of Mercury. I'll bet that name has something to do with Newt's attraction to his current wife.)

Gingrich read Asimov. He's channeling Isaac Asimov and the science-fiction icon's historically inspired vision of Galactic Empire. Gingrich wants to be our Elijah Baley. I can dig that. (Asimov also gave his characters some crazy names: R. Daneel Olivaw, Gladia Delmarre, Golan Trevize... how could a boy named Newt Gingrich not have been inspired?)

A tsunami can wipe out an island. An asteroid can wipe out a planet. A nova can wipe out a solar system. But it will take the Second Law of Thermodynamics and more years than you and I can count to wipe out the entire cosmos. If we can make it to the stars, we can live forever.

"I'm prepared to invest the prestige of the presidency in communicating and building a nationwide movement in favor of space," Gingrich said at a meeting of aerospace executives and community leaders after the rally.

"If we do it right, it'll be wild and it will be just the most fun you've ever seen," he said [Irene Klotz, "Newt Gingrich: Space Visionary and Future Geek-in-Chief?" Christian Science Monitor, 2012.01.26].

That's my kind of grandiosity. And really, does Mitt Romney sound like he'd ever bring us fun?

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Earth, August–October, 2011, as seen from the International Space Station:

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

Can anyone spot Spearfish in that video?

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I filed my tax return electronically on March 8. My refund (I made out like GE) has been not just deposited but spent.

For you poor souls who are still banging away at your W-2's (and there are lots of you)... well, what the heck are you doing reading a blog? Get back to your calculator!

But when you're done, check out this nifty Tax Receipt from your friendly neighborhood POTUS. Punch in your income tax, and President Obama's widget-makers will put an exact dollar figure to your contribution toward paying soldiers, building weapons, paying doctor bills for Grandma and poor kids, launching space shuttles, and other cool things that we do better as a national community than as anarcho-capitalists.

According to the Tax Receipt categories, here are the ten biggest chunks that come out of each dollar we pay in federal income tax:

Medicaid & CHIP 10.7¢
Ongoing military ops, equip, supplies 10.5¢
Medicare 10.3¢
Military R&D, weapons, construction 8.8¢
Interest 7.4¢
Military pay and benefits 6.0¢
Federal military and civilian employee retirement and disability 4.6¢
Unemployment insurance 4.4¢
Food and nutrition assistance 3.6¢
Earned income, making work pay, and child tax credits 3.5¢

Those ten budget lines consume about 70 cents of each dollar you see on Line 76 of your 1040. A quarter and a penny go to the Pentagon. Almost another quarter goes to health care. Foreign development and humanitarian assistance gets seven tenths of a penny... the same amount we spend launching things into outer space.

Know what you're paying for: check out the White House Tax Receipt!

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