Five Casper students and others around Wyoming are preparing for a different kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience during the total solar eclipse.
They’ll be participating in a countrywide endeavor to record images of the sun’s outer layer, called the corona, through identical telescopes and collect data for scientists to study. Because of the sun’s intense light, the corona is visible from earth by the naked eye during a total solar eclipse, which is the best opportunity to study this lesser-known layer of the sun.
To take advantage of the moment on Monday, the Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse) Experiment has organized hundreds of trained volunteers across the country to capture images during the eclipse.
University of Wyoming physics and astronomy professor Mike Pierce is the Wyoming organizer for Citizen CATE, which is coordinated by the National Solar Observatory and funded in part by NASA. Ten Wyoming teams — consisting mostly of high school and college students — will record at sites across Wyoming, from Jackson High School students in Northern Wyoming to a group stationed at a ghost town on the Nebraska border, he said.
They’re among 68 teams across the country participating in the project. The sites are spaced 30 to 40 miles across the path of totality from the west to east coast, Pierce said. If all goes as expected, the result will be 90 minutes of high-resolution images of the corona’s activity to help scientists better understand the sun.
“The idea to be involved in research, real research, has been very exciting to them,” said planetarium supervisor Michele Wistisen, who’s leading the Casper team. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity really, not only the eclipse but an opportunity to hang out with people who are doing real science.”
Two college students originally from Casper have been teaching a group of high school students to help capture images of Monday’s eclipse.
Zach Whipps, a student at Cornell, and Shae Aagard, who recently graduated from the robotics program at Casper College, started working with Daystar telescope last month at the Casper Planetarium.
They’ve learned skills including setting up the equipment and focusing the telescope, as well as making sure it’s tracking correctly and that the link to its control computer is functioning, according to a press release from the Casper Planetarium.
Polar aligning the telescope and adjusting it to track are some of the more challenging tasks, Wistisen said.
“So it’s been a learning curve to be able to do that,” she said.
The telescope will remain with the Casper Planetarium and the other participating schools and other education providers after the eclipse. The planetarium hasn’t had a telescope with tracking capability before, and Wistisen hopes that students will use it in future research projects as well as for public night sky viewings.
The Citizen CATE participants will still be able to experience eclipse totality thanks to automated programs. But during the event they’ll still have to make sure the equipment is running properly, Wistisen said. Someone also will have to keep an eye on the clock. They’ll have to remove the solar filter to capture totality but replace it so the sun won’t damage the sensitive photo sensor as it re-emerges from the moon’s shadow, she added.
The trade-off is students have an opportunity to become part of the science world through their work. They look forward to contact with scientists collecting data nearby and meeting prominent figures in science, including NASA researchers visiting for the event, Wistisen said.
The teams members’ names also will be listed as part of the research team on published studies that use their collected data, Wistisen said.
The Wyoming teams include mostly students and educators along with a few amateur astronomers, Pierce said. He’s trained the educators in workshops and practice sessions as well as advised their teams who’ve submitted test images this summer.
The project gives students the chance to contribute real research, while providing almost 300 volunteers across the country, he added.
“Without their help,” Pierce said, “we just simply couldn’t do this project.”
The project uses 68 identical telescopes, software and instrument packages, and each site will produce more than 1,000 images, according to the Citizen CATE website. Participants include 20 high schools, 20 universities, informal education groups, astronomy clubs and five national science research labs.
“The goal of CATE is to produce a scientifically unique data set: high-resolution, rapid cadence white light images of the inner corona for 90 minutes,” the website says.
“What we’re particularly interested in is waves of material and eruptions on the surface of the sun that eject gas into the corona and the physical processes that are involved in heating that gas,” Pierce said. “The surface of the sun is hot, it’s about 6,000 degrees, but the corona is over a million degrees. We kind of have a broad idea of the heating mechanisms and how material that leaves the surface of the sun at 6,000 degrees gets accelerated and heated, but it’s the details that are kind of mysterious.”
The project is funded through NASA, the National Science Foundation, corporate sponsorship from telescope companies and software groups that wrote programming for the project, Pierce said.
Besides collecting the data, organizers also hope the project will establish a network among teachers, educators and astronomers for future projects.
“The idea is to build upon all that networking that we’ve been developing over the last few months,” Pierce said.