Mary Kidd

Research Spotlight

When darkness falls midday on August 21 during a total solar eclipse, a telescope set up at Tennessee Tech will be looking at the light of the sun’s corona.

It has been nearly four decades since a solar eclipse was viewable from the United States and as the 2017 event arches its way across the country, a network of citizen scientists, universities and high schools will work to get some unique imagery of the sun’s corona, which is the outer atmosphere of the sun typically not fully visible from Earth, through the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment.

“It is really unusual to have an eclipse like this cross over such a large land mass,” said Mary Kidd, Tech Physics Professor and Regional Coordinator for Citizen CATE. “There will be all these sites along the eclipse path and we will all be taking images. At the end of the day, we will have a 90-minute video of the corona as the moon’s shadow passes over the United States.”

What’s so special about that?

“When we are studying the sun, looking at the behavior of the corona tells us a lot about the mass leaving the sun,” Kidd said. “The particles leaving the sun can eventually impact the earth.”

Typically, getting images of the sun’s inner corona is difficult. Astrophysics can artificially create scenarios that will allow them to look at portions of the corona, but a 90-minute video the Citizen CATE Experiment hopes to generate will give scientists a full view only possible during a total solar eclipse.

“It is great to have this chunk of time where we can look at the corona and how it is evolving,” Kidd said.

To create this video, a fleet of identical telescopes and associated computer equipment will be set up and manned by citizen scientists and students at more than 68 sites. While the totality of the eclipse, when the inner corona will be visible, will only last approximately two minutes at each site, the combined data will offer the first look at how the sun’s atmosphere behaves over 90-minutes.

One of those telescopes will be set up inside Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium for the university’s Eclipse Fest and Viewing Party.

“New scientific results about the dynamics of the magnetic fields and plasmas in this part of the solar corona will be derived from the data, and the image sequence will provide a beautiful perspective of the solar eclipse as never seen before,” according to the Citizen CATE organization.

Tech is the headquarters for Citizen CATE in Tennessee, and recently, 30 Citizen CATE observers from 12 sites along the path of totality gathered at the university to practice using their identical equipment in a training coordinated by Kidd.

While other telescopes will be allowed on the football field inside the stadium during the eclipse event, space is limited and reservations are required.

Tech’s Eclipse Fest and Viewing Party is free and open to the public, offering one of the largest total solar eclipse public viewing spaces.

For more information, visit tntech.edu/eclipse.

Training for CATE was sponsored by a NASA SMD EPO grant. Student work was partially sponsored by NSF REU AST-1460743. The 2017 equipment was sponsored by Daystar

Filters, Mathworks, Celestron, colorMaker and with support from NSF. NSO is operated by AURA, Inc. under a contract with NSF.