Solar eclipses happen every so often, but the one taking place on August 21st will be a first-of-its-kind event. That’s not because of the eclipse itself, but because of what the people in its path are doing. Various universities and scientific organizations are working to unite fans of science to collect data like temperature, photos, and even radio signals.
A total solar eclipse occurs when the sun is completely covered by the moon. The eclipse on August 21st is important because it will cover the entire US from coast to coast. That hasn’t happened since 1918, and uniting people to do science was a bit harder back then. The total eclipse will be visible from a swath of the country passing through the states of Oregon, Idaho, Montana (just a tiny bit), Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. However, the band in which observers will see the total eclipse is only 72 miles wide. If you’re just a little outside that band, the moon won’t line up exactly with the sun.
You can see what the eclipse will look like from your backyard using Google’s simulator. Simply input your location, and watch as the time lapse shows you the progression of the eclipse. It defaults to 1,000x playback speed, but you can boost it to 4,000x. Note the times at the bottom of the playback controls. That will help you figure out when you should be snapping photos (and not looking at the sky without protection).
Google has partnered with the University of California Berkeley to collect an unprecedented amount of data from this total solar eclipse. All across the US, citizen scientists will be snapping photos to create a film documenting the eclipse’s path. You can even simulate the eclipse in your location on Google’s Megamovie project website. With the wonders of modern technology, Google and Berkeley aim to have a legion of at least 1,000 volunteers in the path of the eclipse taking photos. Those images will be assembled into a movie documenting the path of the eclipse.
If you want to participate, simply sign in with your Google account and set up your profile. You need to input your location and what equipment you’ll be using to shoot. Google recommends a DSLR with GPS module, but you can also use a camera paired with a phone for GPS. A phone is acceptable, too, but Google recommends getting a clip-on zoom lens. The eclipse will take place August 21st during the late morning on the west coast and early afternoon on the east coast.
Meanwhile, the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Arizona is working on a similar photographic effort. Led by astronomer Matthew Penn, the goal here is to get people to photograph the sun’s corona during the eclipse. The corona is the sun’s outer atmosphere, and it’s usually obscured by the brightness. However, the eclipse will block enough light that it becomes relatively easy to photograph the corona.
The NSO project is known as the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment (CATE). It involves a network of volunteers stationed along the path of the eclipse with identical telescopes to take digital photos of the sun. This data will later be turned into a 93-minute movie of the event, a bit like Google’s effort.
A project called Life Responds from the California Academy of Sciences asks volunteers to turn their attention, not to the sky, but to the way animals and plants respond to the eclipse. They’ll use an app called iNaturalist to log their observations and get expert help identifying the organisms they come across.
George Mason University in Virginia and the University of Massachusetts in Boston are looking to collect data about how the Earth’s atmosphere responds to an eclipse. The project is called EclipseMob, and it relies upon a network of home made radio receivers, smartphones, and other devices.
When sunlight is blocked, the ionosphere above Earth can fluctuate in unusual ways. Radio waves passing through this electrically charged region of the atmosphere can be affected, which is what volunteers will be observing. EclipseMob plans to transmit radio waves to the volunteers. Seeing how they are affected by the ionosphere could offer insights into the nature of Earth’s upper atmosphere.
You might still be able to help out and do some science if you start looking into it right now. The Eclipse is only a few days away, but the goal of citizen science is that you don’t always need a lot of specialized equipment. As long as you’ve got a thermometer, you can help NASA gather data on temperature changes during an eclipse.
Now read: How to Safely Watch the August 21st Eclipse