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Want A Unique Solar Eclipse Experience? Become A Citizen Scientist


This month’s total solar eclipse might be the most-studied disappearance of the sun ever, thanks in part to legions of citizen scientists from the Northwest and beyond.

NASA, UC-Berkeley and other institutions are recruiting volunteers to aid more than half-a-dozen different science experiments tied to the celestial happening on Aug. 21.

In some cases, all you need to join the crowd-sourced observing network is a smartphone or a ham radio.

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OPB's Coverage Of The Oregon Solar Eclipse 2017

Get ready, Oregon. A total eclipse on Aug. 21 is expected to bring upward of a million people to the state.

On the morning of the total eclipse, retired science teacher Bruce Montgomery plans to park his pickup truck in his brother-in-law’s hay field near Prineville, Oregon. While his extended family peers skyward with eclipse-viewing glasses, Montgomery will keep one eye trained on his portable ham radio.

Montgomery is one of many amateur radio operators volunteering in a citizen science project to examine the ionosphere. Long distance radio signals bounce off that layer of the upper atmosphere, which is influenced by solar radiation.

Montgomery, who’s from Tenino, Washington, and serves as president of the Olympia Amateur Radio Society, will transmit voice and data calls before, during and after the solar eclipse. Automated receivers across the continent will measure how the moon’s passage in front of the sun affects the propagation of the radio signals.

“I get excited about it,” Montgomery said. “It’s going to be good fun to participate in genuine scientific research and contributing to this body of knowledge, even though I can assure you that my small station will be a very small contribution.”

As far as concerns about missing the eclipse due to the science experiment, Montgomery says he isn’t worried. 

“I’ll be able to see the effects of the eclipse, OK,” Montgomery said. “I’ll have the windows down.”

The ham radio experiment is just one of many avenues for non-scientists to take part in eclipse studies. Rihana Mungin, a senior engineering student at Portland State University, joined a student team that will deploy camera-carrying, high altitude weather balloons. They’ll launch from Corvallis, Oregon.

“This balloon, we want it to go to at least 80,000 feet,” Mungin said.  


That’s way above where airplanes fly. 


“Airplanes, maximum they are going about [is] 39,000 feet,” Mungin said. “So we’re going at least twice as high.”

Theirs is one of more than 50 NASA-funded balloons which will live stream the eclipse from its beginning off the Oregon Coast, then follow it cross country to the end out in the Atlantic.  


A team from Linn-Benton Community College will launch the first in the balloon series from an Oregon State University research vessel roughly 50 kilometers off the Oregon Coast. Other Northwest high school and college students are involved in subsequent launches from the Willamette Valley to Wyoming.


Mungin’s team flight tested three additional balloons they plan to send to the edge of space to photograph the shadow of the moon as it races across Oregon.

“You’re going to be wherever you are during the eclipse,” Mungin said. “The sun is going to get blocked out. You’ll be in total darkness. Then it’ll come back up. But there’s no context, right, for what is happening? You don’t really see what is going on. This is a way to help change that perspective.”

Mungin said working on this eclipse ballooning project rekindled her enthusiasm for mechanical engineering, which was flagging last year. 


“It has actually completely changed my perspective on engineering and it has definitely reengaged me in my education and my studies,” Mungin said. “Now I am looking at jobs beyond what I was originally training for. Now I am considering going to graduate school and continuing my studies.”


Slots in the eclipse ballooning project are all taken, but there are other citizen science projects with unlimited capacity. A NASA video invites anyone with a smartphone and an outdoor thermometer to download an app and participate in a study about how much the temperature drops.

Another smartphone-based experiment run by the California Academy of Sciences invites you to choose nearby plants or wild animals to observe immediately before, during and after the eclipse and report behavioral changes you see

Eclipse photographers can upload pictures of the total solar eclipse with location coordinates. The University of California-Berkeley and Google will stitch those together into what they’re calling a crowdsourced “Eclipse Megamovie.” 


“This total solar eclipse across the United States is a unique opportunity in modern times, enabling the entire country to be engaged through modern technology and social media,” Carrie Black, a program director at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, said in a statement. “Images and data from as many as millions of people will be collected and analyzed by scientists for years to come.” 


”This is a generational event,” agreed Madhulika Guhathakurta, NASA lead scientist for the 2017 Eclipse. “This is going to be the most documented, the most appreciated eclipse ever.” 


The scientific observations will mostly come from along the “path of totality,” the 60- to 70-mile wide ribbon where the moon will completely cover the sun. Northwest cities under the path of totality include Lincoln City, Salem, Corvallis, Madras, Prineville, John Day and Ontario, Oregon; and Weiser, Cascade and Stanley, Idaho.

The moon’s shadow will produce a partial eclipse across a much wider swath.

Eight Eclipse Citizen Science Projects:  

  • Eclipse Ballooning Project - Students will launch high altitude balloons (HAB) from about 25 locations across the total eclipse path sending live video and images from near space to the NASA website.
  • NASA GLOBE Observer - Become an eclipse scientist by downloading the NASA app to make environmental observations during the eclipse that complement the space agency’s work.
  • The Citizen CATE Experiment - The project aims to capture images of the inner solar corona using a network of more than 60 telescopes operated by citizen scientists, high school groups and universities.
  • Eclipse MegaMovie 2017 -  Thousands of images from volunteer photographers and amateur astronomers will be stitched together to create an expanded and continuous view of the total eclipse as it crosses the U.S.
  • Eclipse Soundscapes - A multisensory experience of the eclipse for the visually impaired and others who won’t be able to see the eclipse—including real-time audio descriptions, changing environmental sounds, and an app that will allow users to visualize the eclipse through touch.
  • Solar Eclipse 2017: Life Responds - Download an app to record how plant and animal life responds to environmental changes that happen over the course of the eclipse.
  • EclipseMob - Build your own radio receiver and participate in a crowdsourced effort to study the effect of sunlight on the ionosphere.
  • HamSCI Eclipse Experiment - Amateur radio operators can participate to learn more about impact of solar eclipses on radio signals.

The American Astronomical Society website has a list of more citizen science projects.

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