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April 8 solar eclipse provides spectating, research opportunities

Two men look at a telescope in a field on a sunny day.
Rusty Bailey
SIUC Media & Communications
Researches get ready for the 2017 Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Eclipse Festival. Scientist and volunteer teams have undergone similar trainings in anticipation for the 2024 eclipse.

A total solar eclipse will pass over 13 states, including parts of western Kentucky, southern Indiana and southern Illinois, in just one month.

In a total solar eclipse, like the one taking place on April 8th, the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, leaving only the sun’s corona – the outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere – visible.

Kentucky’s Transportation Cabinet expects at least 150,000 travelers in western Kentucky for the eclipse, and over 1 million drivers traveling on the Commonwealth’s roads to other solar eclipse viewing spots in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.

Ahead of the rare astronomical event, experts advise those planning to witness the solar eclipse to invest in protective eyewear.

According to the American Astronomical Society, safe solar glasses are dramatically darker than a normal pair of sunglasses and even some types of lenses used for welding helmets. The society also advises to check protective eyewear for scratches, punctures and tears, and to discard filters with those defects.

Dhanajay Ravat is a geophysics professor at the University of Kentucky. He compared solar shades to the lenses in welding helmets, a safety measure against UV light radiation, and said the solar glasses are needed to safely look at the sun during the part of the eclipse when the moon is not completely blocking the sun.

“It is quite significant, if it is not cloudy, and it can affect our eyes even through those welding glasses, if you will. So [solar glasses] are of a much higher standard,” Ravat said.

While the University of Kentucky professor said spectators can take off their glasses when the eclipse reaches its brief window of totality, he urged people to remember to put the eye protection back on before it exits its totality phase.

Ravat said the solar eclipse isn’t just a great time for spectators, but also for scientists. The celestial event provides further opportunities to observe the sun, which can help researchers understand how the sun affects Earth and technologies.

“We conduct research in order to understand what emanates from the sun and how often solar storms happen,” he said. “There are things called coronal mass ejections, where basically some particles are very rapidly thrown out into space, and they go in all directions.”

Coronal mass ejection particles take some time to reach Earth, but Ravat said they can affect astronauts, space stations, and satellite systems. The ejections, which contain iron particles, can also affect electrical systems on Earth.

A nationwide research program, in partnership with NASA, is being led by a core team of researchers and citizen volunteers at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which is located in the crosshairs of both the 2017 and 2024 total solar eclipse paths.

Robert Baer, the co-chair of the solar eclipse 2017/2024 SIU Steering Committee, explained the program’s goals.

“Part of our study is to see if we can better predict solar flares, based on what's going on with the surface of the sun. As well as looking at the solar corona and the atmosphere of the sun to see how they behave,” he said. “The eclipse gives us the opportunity to do this type of research because the direct sunlight is completely blacked out, and we can see the solar corona from Earth all the way down to the surface of the sun.”

During the eclipse, teams from around the western hemisphere, even outside the path of totality in places like Washington State, Puerto Rico and western Canada, will focus their specialized telescopes on the sun.

“Inside the path, those teams give us, for the most part, uninterrupted coverage of the eclipse as the shadow crosses the earth. What we get out of that is a movie of the corona, as it actually changes from any one of those sites. Those sites outside of the path are taking a look at the surface of the sun. We're comparing what we see with the corona to the surface features on the sun at the same time.” Baer said.

“If we see something going on, like a flare, or an interesting feature in the corona, we can trace it back to a feature on the surface of the sun. That's why we're doing observations both inside and outside the path of totality.”

The collected monochrome, high-definition picture data will be used to make a movie of sorts. By using the pictures, which pixels relate to measurements and values, researchers can observe particular areas of the sun.

The next total solar eclipse that crosses through the contiguous United States is projected to be in the year 2044.

Copyright 2024 WKMS

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