Views / Science Says

Seize the day: Hobbyists become Citizen Scientists for solar eclipse

Amateur astronomers are excited about the research and education opportunities this less than once-in-a-blue-moon event affords.

Arushi, 8 and Artash, 11, en route by train to the path of totality, along with their homemade “Solar-X” machine.

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Arushi, 8 and Artash, 11, en route by train to the path of totality, along with their homemade “Solar-X” machine.

Scientists around the world are seizing the precious few minutes of a total solar eclipse to make important measurements. But amateurs, students and citizen scientists are equally excited about the research and education opportunities this less than once-in-a-blue-moon event affords.

Take Toronto's Nath family. Metro caught up with dad Vikas Nath, mom Rati and kids Arushi, 8, and Artash, 11, while they were on a train car packed with backyard astronomers headed for Carbondale, Ill., where the period of totality, or total darkness, will max out at two minutes and 40 seconds. 

They're armed with safety glasses, solar binoculars and a homemade “Solar-X” device fashioned from a lunchbox and equipped with sensors that will automatically measure temperature, pressure, humidity, visible light, solar power and UV rays while they take in the eclipse.

They're submitting their data to NASA’s GLOBE Observer project and publishing it on their own science outreach site, Hotpoprobot.com.

“These conversations start on the family level," Vikas said. "If you start (kids) young, then we’ll have people who become inventors and creators rather than consumers of technology.”

Meanwhile, in Huron County, Ont., west of Toronto, retired microbiologist Jeff Wilson is putting the final touches on his DIY radio setup.

He’s one of the hundreds of amateur or “ham” radio enthusiasts submitting data to a study of eclipse-related atmospheric changes based at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The sun's radiation concentrates electrons in the upper atmosphere, which affects how radio waves travel. Scientists know that's why different radio frequencies are accessible at different times of day, but there's still a lot to learn.

With the sun 70 per cent blocked by Ontario’s partial eclipse, Wilson might be able to pick up signals he normally gets only around sunset or sunrise.

All day, he’ll be putting out his call sign – the Morse code equivalent of “Hey, is anybody there?” – on a frequency just above AM radio.

“Around 10 a.m., we’ll get a baseline. I’ll be able to talk to some guys in Michigan, that’s about it. As things get darker, we’ll expect the propagation to change ... and we may get a couple of thousand miles to the west coast of the United States or Vancouver,” he said.   

At the same time, 200 km away in Mississauga, pharmacist Eric Gunter, his dad and his 14 and 16-year-old sons will also be on a ham radio. However, theirs was built from a standard kit provided by Eclipse Mob, a huge study supported by the National Science Foundation. It's looking at how the eclipse affects the movement of very low frequency waves.

All the participants, mostly non-scientists, will be listening to the same signals from Colorado and California and uploading their time, location and radio data to an app.

“I love getting kids’ interest in STEM type things going,” Gunter said. “It involves technology and phones, but this is showing them that they can be utilized for more than just social media.” 

Back in Toronto, astronomy Ph.D. student Heidi White will be at the CNE handing out eclipse glasses and encouraging passers-by to stop, peer through a telescope, and watch the moon inching across the sun.

She studies galaxy evolution – totally unrelated to eclipses – but feels "the same awe as everyone else."

“It’s really awesome how events like this can bring people together,” White said. “Distances are separating us right now, (but) we’re still sharing this moment. On Monday we’ll all be looking up at the sky.”  

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