Get Your Science On: The Great American Eclipse, Part III

The 2017 total solar eclipse is almost upon us, and we’re sure you’ve been hearing a lot about it over the past few weeks (including our eclipse posts Part I and Part II). Whether it’s your first solar eclipse or one of many you’ve witnessed, the event promises to be a show-stopper—weather permitting, of course.

An image of the August 1st, 2008 solar eclipse as it reached totality, revealing the corona.
Image Credit: The Exploratorium, via NASA

That anticipation is shared by scientists who hope to make key measurements during the critical totality phase. From confirming the precise shape of the Moon’s topography to watching the behavior of animals as the sky darkens, researchers from all over the world are taking the opportunity to make observations that are only possible during a total solar eclipse. And they can often use your help! As we mentioned last time, NASA maintains a Citizen Science page linking to several eclipse-related projects eager for volunteers. So before you break out your eclipse glasses on Monday, you might want to check out how you can chip in.

One such opportunity you might want to check out is the Eclipse Megamovie Project, an unprecedented attempt to create a movie of the entire 90-minute eclipse, compiled from photographs taken all along the path of totality. A joint effort by UC Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory (SSL) and Google’s Making & Science Team, the project has recruited more than 1,000 amateur photographers who will be positioned all along the trajectory of the eclipse. If you’ll be out there on Monday and are planning to use a DSLR camera to take photographs of your own, you can submit them to the project as well.

“The idea was that, as opposed to just eclipse photography, we would try to make a timeline of eclipse photography,” says Megamovie co-founder Dr. Hugh Hudson of SSL. “Typically, an eclipse doesn’t last for very long — it’s a snapshot sort of thing. With the timeline, with the full development of the corona in time along the path of totality, it would be possible to describe that as a movie.” As amazing as it sounds to watch the entire eclipse end-to-end, the goal of the project is not just to produce a groovy film. By compiling all of these photographs, scientists will be able to observe the dynamics of the inner solar corona, a part of the Sun’s atmosphere that is very difficult to observe for even a moment, much less an hour and a half. “I think there’s a lot of dynamical information that’s present,” explains Hudson, “which has never been done before in the inner corona.” The prospect of that new information is exciting because the time-dependent behavior of the corona will offer clues, he hopes, to what lies beneath.

What if you don’t have an expensive camera and are intending to just sit back and enjoy the show? That’s exactly what Hudson himself plans to do from Corvallis, Oregon — and, thanks to the second branch of the Megamovie Project, he’ll still be collecting useful data on the eclipse. “I’m not planning to do anything during the eclipse except just to kick back and watch it, because that’s, I think, meant to be the right thing to do,” he says. “Don’t mess with your cameras. You get one of these automated programs to operate your camera, or use our app which is fully automated.”

In addition to the movie project, the team has developed a free smartphone app for Android and Apple that will automatically capture images of the eclipse from a mobile device. All you have to do is download the app, follow the instructions, and make sure it’s pointed at the Sun. Tens of thousands of people using the Eclipse Megamovie Mobile app will collect crucial, geotagged data on the timing of each eclipse phase, from the moment the edge of the Moon first slides in front of the Sun to totality itself. Because the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been steadily improving maps of the Moon’s topography since 2009, this precise timing and geospatial information could allow us to measure slight undulations in the Sun’s shape. And the timing of this eclipse couldn’t have been better, as new evidence supporting a rapidly rotating solar core emerged just a few weeks ago. Since the details of the Sun’s shape are intimately tied to the dynamics of the core, the dataset provided by citizen scientists on Monday may be able to confirm or counter that conclusion.

The eclipse will no doubt prove an exciting and meaningful event for the crowds of people migrating to the path of totality on Monday. Thanks to smartphone and GPS technology, it will also provide rare opportunities for scientists. “This will be a wonderful experiment, never before possible to do systematically,” says Hudson, citing a fundamental rule of science: “If you make a precise measurement, you will learn something — and so this is a good chance for that.”

Join us after the eclipse for a special podcast episode exploring the events of the day and digging into the science results. Until then, get out there, be safe, and enjoy the show!

Meg Rosenburg

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