Last Saturday’s “ring of fire” eclipse, which blocked out 98 percent of the sun’s surface, was a rare and spectacular sight for those who got to view it. But the total solar eclipse in 2024 is going to be a particularly special event.
On April 8, when the eclipse will cross the United States, the sun will be nearing its most active phase. Solar maximum, as it’s known when the sun acts up every 11 years, features more sunspots, increased light and radiation, and frequent blasts of charged particles from the sun’s surface in solar storms that threaten satellites and may even disrupt communications and power grids on Earth (SN: 2/26/21).
Being on the brink of a solar maximum also means it’s a great time for an eclipse.
The combination of high solar activity and a total eclipse provides a rare view of the outer edges of the sun at a time when researchers have more scientific instruments to study our star than ever before, says astrophysicist Kelly Korreck of NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. That’s leading to a flurry of activity and a host of projects to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about the sun and its effects on our planet and atmosphere.
The benefits extend beyond working scientists. “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 of the ways you can contribute to science during the upcoming eclipse.
Help make an improved eclipse megamovie
Volunteers along the path of totality, where the sun is fully blocked by the moon, will take pictures of the eclipse to be stitched together into a movie covering the event as it moves from Texas to Maine. The 2024 Eclipse Megamovie will be an improved follow-up to the 2017 effort that was the first crowdsourced collection of total eclipse images turned into a movie (SN: 8/2/17).
The primary goal of the 2017 version was to inspire people to get out to see the eclipse, says physicist Laura Peticolas of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. This time around, the intent is to “gather data in a more structured way in 2024 to increase our likelihood of having publishable results.”
Volunteers with access to high-quality cameras, on mounts that allow them to precisely follow the sun’s path in the sky, will collect images aligned and sized to optimize the scientific value of the movie.
“We are one of the only [volunteer-based] teams looking at how the [visible plasma jets] move from the bright sun’s photosphere out to the solar wind, where NASA can watch the features continue into the solar system,” Peticolas says.
To contribute images for the movie, volunteers need to apply by October 31. The Eclipse Megamovie collaboration will provide the sun-tracking mounts for free to up to 100 volunteers. People who miss the volunteer application deadline or don’t have the right equipment to take pictures can participate in efforts to analyze the data in the months following the eclipse.
Help nail down the shape of the sun
If all you have is a smartphone camera, you can still contribute to science, provided you can get to the path of totality.
With the SunSketcher app, you can help time the appearance of bright spots of light, known as Baily’s beads, that appear when sunlight shines through valleys on the moon just before and after the total eclipse. Data from volunteers who install the app “will allow us to precisely determine the shape of the sun,” says astrophysicist Gordon Emslie of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
The results, Emslie says, will help test theories of gravity by looking at how the shape of the sun affects the orbits of planets. “By including as many phones as possible, spread out over the 2,000-mile-long, 100-mile-wide path of the April 2024 eclipse, we will get views of the solar shape from a very large number of vantage points.”
You can take part without interrupting your other eclipse-watching activities. Just install the app on your phone, prop it up facing the sun and start the app running at least five minutes before totality. The app will handle the rest, and you get to keep copies of the pictures as a souvenir.
Help listen to the effects on wildlife
Eclipses have a dramatic effect on animals, as first scientifically observed in 1932. Volunteers with the Eclipse Soundscapes project will expand on earlier studies by using sound data they collect on or near the path of totality.
Instructions for building the equipment you’ll need are on the Eclipse Soundscapes website. You can also apply to get a completed kit. But if you don’t get one of the prebuilt ones and don’t want to put a data recorder together from scratch, or if you won’t be close to the path of totality, you can still participate by observing the impacts of the eclipse on the environment, wherever you happen to be.
After you upload your observations to the Eclipse Soundscapes website, volunteers will analyze them along with all the other submitted observations.
There’s more to it than sound, says MaryKay Severino, who is a science education expert with the ARISA Lab in Medford, Mass. Eclipses “are multisensory events, which makes them more powerful and more accessible,” she says. “Eclipse Soundscapes focuses heavily on the sound in addition to other sense observations to help us begin to understand how solar eclipses affect nature.”
More citizen science opportunities
Some projects rely on teams sharing specialized equipment to observe the eclipse. The Dynamic Eclipse Broadcast Initiative will provide cameras and telescope systems, along with training, for upwards of 35 teams who will estimate the speed and acceleration of plumes ejected from the solar corona.
Sixty teams taking part in the Citizen Continental-America Telescope Eclipse project will use cameras that can record the corona with polarized light in a quest to understand how the solar wind emerges from the sun (SN: 6/7/23).
Both projects have limited supplies of equipment, which means limited opportunities for volunteers, so get in touch with them soon if you want to join.
Other projects involve repurposing equipment intended for different uses. Ham radio buffs can join the HamSCI community to see how eclipses change the way radio signals propagate through the atmosphere. NASA’s Radio JOVE project includes eclipse-monitoring information for amateur astronomers who typically rely on radio telescopes to study the sun, Jupiter and the Milky Way galaxy.
Whether you set up a camera, install an app, join a team or fire up your radio receiver, Korreck says there has never been a better time for citizen scientists to contribute to solar eclipse research. And if you miss the event on April 8, 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.”