Want To Do More Than Just Watch The Eclipse? Become A Citizen Scientist

Aug 7, 2017

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 August 21.

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

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 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."

But during this time the eclipse will be going on. Doesn't he want to watch it?

"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.

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


That's way above where airplanes fly. 


"Oh definitely, yeah. Airplanes, maximum they are going about 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 Pacific 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 during the eclipse.

Another smartphone-based experiment run by the California Academy of Sciences invites you to choose nearby plants or 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 from more than 35 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 temperature and cloud cover observations during the eclipse.
  • 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. The app developers at Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics want to crowdsource audio recordings of the August 21 event to capture the soundscape of the eclipse in different places.
  • Solar Eclipse 2017: Life Responds - Download an app to report your observations before, during and after the eclipse on how plant and animal life responds.
  • EclipseMob - Build your own radio receiver and participate in a crowdsourced effort to study the effect of solar radiation on the ionosphere.
  • HamSCI Eclipse Experiment - Amateur radio operators can participate in a study about the impact of solar eclipses on long distance radio signals by sending data and voice transmissions.

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