Solar eclipses happen when the moon passes between the Earth and sun. These events are always spectacular. But total solar eclipses — when the moon completely masks the sun from Earth’s view — are extra special. One such eclipse will be visible across large parts of North America on April 8, 2024. During that time, sky watchers can marvel at the view. They also can take part in scientific research.
The upcoming eclipse will happen at an exciting time for solar science. On April 8, the sun will be nearing its most active phase. The sun reaches this “solar maximum” every 11 years. It’s when the sun gives off more radiation and blasts a lot of charged particles from its surface. Such solar storms threaten satellites orbiting Earth. They can even disrupt power grids on the ground.
This high activity as the moon blocks the sun will offer a rare view of the corona, or sun’s outer edges.
And researchers now have more scientific instruments to study our star than ever before, says Kelly Korreck. She’s an astrophysicist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. This provides a unique chance to learn about the sun and its effects on our planet and its atmosphere.
But science pros aren’t the only ones getting in on the fun. Citizen scientists are members of the public who help gather observations and analyze them. “There’s a lot of emphasis on citizen science and having folks join NASA in doing [solar] science projects,” Korreck says.
Here are a few ways you can do citizen science during the upcoming eclipse.
What shape is the sun?
During a solar eclipse, the moon doesn’t block sunlight to all parts of Earth at once. The moon briefly casts its shadow only over places in the “path of totality.” People within that path see the moon’s disk completely blot out the sun. During the April 8 eclipse, the path of totality will run from Mexico into Texas and on up through Maine and Canada.
People along this path can use smartphone cameras and the SunSketcher app to time the appearance of “Baily’s beads.” These are bright spots of light that appear when sunlight shines through valleys on the moon. They appear just before and after the moon fully eclipses the sun.
Data from the SunSketcher app “will allow us to precisely determine the shape of the sun,” says Gordon Emslie. This astrophysicist works at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Astronomers can use the timing of Baily’s beads to clock exactly how long it takes the moon to pass in front of the sun. They can then use that to calculate exactly how wide the sun is.
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Scientists want to know the exact shape of the sun because that shape affects the sun’s gravitational tug on planets. That, in turn, affects the planets’ orbits.
Scientists hope to recruit “as many phones as possible, spread out over the 2,000-mile-long, 100-mile-wide path of the April 2024 eclipse,” Emslie says. That would offer “views of the solar shape from a very large number of vantage points.”
You can take part without interrupting your view of the eclipse. Just start the app on your phone and prop it up facing the sun at least five minutes before the moon passes in front of the sun. The app will handle the rest. You’ll get to keep copies of the pictures as a souvenir.
Listen to effects on wildlife
Scientists have known since at least 1932 that eclipses have a big effect on animals. Some observers have noted birds falling quiet when the moon dims the midday sun. Crickets may start to chirp. During the next eclipse, volunteers with the Eclipse Soundscapes project can share their own observations.
The project’s website has instructions to build equipment to record sounds. You can also apply to get a completed kit. Or you can just observe the impacts of the eclipse on your local environment. You can do this whether you’re in the path of totality or not.
Volunteers will analyze data uploaded to the Eclipse Soundscapes website. This work can help reveal how solar eclipses affect nature, MaryKay Severino says. She’s a science-education expert with the ARISA Lab in Medford, Mass.
Some citizen-science projects rely on teams sharing special tools to observe the eclipse. The Dynamic Eclipse Broadcast Initiative is one. It will provide cameras and telescope systems, along with training, to 70 teams. These teams will then estimate how fast the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, spits out plumes of material.
More than 35 teams will take part in the Citizen Continental-America Telescope Eclipse project. They will use cameras to record polarized light from the corona. (Polarized light consists of light waves that wiggle back and forth at particular angles.) The goal is to understand how a constant flow of charged particles called the solar wind emerges from the sun.
Both projects have limited supplies. That means they have a limited chance to take part. So if you want to join, get in touch with them soon!
Other projects involve using equipment originally meant for different purposes. For instance, ham-radio buffs can join the HamSCI community. This group will see how eclipses change the way radio signals travel through Earth’s atmosphere.
There has never been a better time for citizen scientists to contribute to solar-eclipse research, Korreck says. That’s true whether you set up a camera, install an app, join a team or fire up your radio receiver. If you miss the April 8 event, you’ll have to wait a while for another chance, she says. “This is the last one for 20 years that covers any major part of the U.S.”