Gazing at the slowly disappearing sun through my protective eclipse glasses, I was filled with wonder during the total solar eclipse on August 21. The Great American Eclipse was a scientific marvel and an awe-inspiring sight.
This marked the first total solar eclipse in the continental United States since 1979 and the first across the entirety of the continental U.S. since 1918, before Hawaii and Alaska were states. My Mom and I were among the more than 7,000 people who watched the moon blot out the sun at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.
People everywhere in the U.S. experienced at least a partial eclipse, where the moon obscures a portion of the sun. I feel fortunate to live just a state away from the path of totality, where the moon completely blots out the sun for anywhere from 55 seconds to two minutes and 40 seconds. It crossed through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.
Besides the magic and wonderment of a total eclipse, this event also served as a reminder of the value of scientific data. NASA is funding 11 scientific studies that involve data that can only be collected during the eclipse.
“This will be one of the best-observed eclipses to date, and we plan to take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn as much as we can about the sun and its effects on Earth,” said Steve Clarke, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Read on for three data facts related to the recent eclipse.
Eclipse Fact #1 - Data helped scientists map the eclipse
Nineteenth Century astronomers and mathematicians Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel and William Chauvenet developed the math still used today to make eclipse maps but those calculations used to assume everyone was at sea level and that the moon was perfectly symmetrical.
For this recent eclipse, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter collected elevation data from the moon. Prior to the eclipse, scientists used that data as well as detailed NASA topography data of Earth to create the most accurate maps to date showing the path of totality across the United States.
NASA visualizer Ernie Wright at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, created an elevation map of Earth that shows “the true, time-varying shape of the moon’s shadow,” according to NASA.
“We couldn’t have done visualizations like this even 10 years ago,” said NASA's Wright. “This is a confluence of increasing computing power and new datasets from remote sensing platforms like LRO and the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.”
Eclipse Fact #2 - Citizens collected a significant amount of data for scientists
Scientists enlisted the help of citizen scientists to help them gather as much data as possible from this total eclipse, according to a CBS news report. They hope the thousands of amateur photos will provide insights into the solar system.
“If the network works perfectly, we’ll get 30 times the data of previous studies. Even if we have 50 percent participation, we’ll get 10 times the amount of data, so it’s going to be a big improvement either way,” said Matt Penn, the director of Citizen CATE, the amateur scientist experiment with 68 teams nationwide.
Penn’s team at Tuscon, Arizona’s National Solar Observatory gave volunteers equipment and instructions to collect the data. These citizens were located throughout the path of totality during the eclipse to maximize the amount of data for scientists.
In Merced, California, students at Yosemite High School took photos and recorded atmospheric temperatures and cloud patterns on behalf of NASA’s Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program through a mobile app.
Eclipse Fact #3 - NASA scientists will study eclipse data for years to come
The end of the eclipse for most people is just the beginning for scientists who study the eclipse, according to the article “The solar eclipse is over, but scientists will be studying it for years.” One of the most important observations was of the sun’s corona, the sun’s thin, outer atmosphere only visible during total eclipses. The light from the sun usually blocks the light from the corona.
Scientists collected data that will enable them to better predict future solar flares or coronal mass ejections, which can affect telecommunications systems on Earth. NASA also collected video and images from 11 spacecraft; at least three NASA aircraft; more than 50 high-altitude balloons (from 30 locations across the eclipse path); orbiting satellites; and the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, according to a NASA report. NASA photographer Joel Kowsky shot the transit of the ISS in front of the sun during the eclipse at 1,500 frames per second using a high-speed camera.
Among other things, NASA scientists will study how energy is absorbed and reflected in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The next solar eclipse in North America will be in 2024. Meet you in totality!