April 21, 2017

NASA, other eclipse partners to visit SIU in May

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – With the total solar eclipse only a few months away, the planning group at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is nailing down details on how the university and its partners will handle one of the highest-profile celestial events in the country in years.

To that end, officials from NASA, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and a solar instrumentation company are planning a two-day visit to SIU in early May to prepare for the event, which may draw as many as 50,000 people to the campus and city.

Details about SIU’s plans for the Aug. 21 eclipse are available here.

The visiting contingent, which will include officials from the NASA EDGE webcast program, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Lunt Solar Systems, is set for May 1-2. During the visit, officials will review plans and logistics for the eclipse education program, which will have great implications for sky watchers not only in Carbondale that day, but those all over the world.

NASA EDGE is a video podcast discussing the latest technology and research going on at NASA centers across the country. New episodes appear monthly and are transmitted to the public through several websites, including NASA TV, iTunes, YouTube, USTREAM and other podcast sites.

The show, which combines humor and education, provides an insider's view of NASA and updates the public on the most innovative and groundbreaking research. On eclipse day, NASA EDGE is planning a four-hour broadcast that will include live interviews and video of the eclipse as it crosses the country.

Blair Allen, the irreverent co-host and “professional outsider” of NASA EDGE, said the trip is an important planning event for the show.

“During our trip there we will be confirming many of the logistics for our broadcast,” Allen said.  “For example, we will finalize the placement of our set, test technical capability for sending our signal via the web and confirm camera placement, and such.”

The NASA EDGE team also will work with Lunt Solar Systems, maker of solar telescopes and ultra-high definition heliostats, to determine the best solar observation sites near the program’s set, and to run other tests for the day of observations, Allen said.

On Aug. 21, the eclipse viewing path and shadow will sweep across the country from northwest to southeast, with its point of greatest duration a few miles south of Carbondale. The total solar eclipse is the first over the mainland United States since 1979.

The university’s planning, led by a campus-community committee, has been under way for more than two years. Plans call for activities throughout the weekend before and day of the eclipse.

Lou Mayo, planetary scientist with NASA and program manager for the agency for the event, said NASA selected SIU as its site to cover the eclipse for a number of reasons.

“SIU has excellent infrastructure that can accommodate a large number of people,” Mayo said. “It has an engaged community (and) it is on the center line and is the center of the eclipse (for greatest duration). It also has reasonable chances for clear skies.”

As program manager for NASA’s eclipse activities, Mayo said he will be helping coordinate operations while also staffing the NASA booth at SIU on the big day.

“I am also an astronomer and will be involved in interviews about the eclipse,” he said. “Hopefully, I will have time to snap a few pictures as well.”

Mayo said solar eclipses are “wondrous events” but are often too remote to attend. Many occur over the oceans that cover so much of the Earth’s surface.

“This one is right in our backyard so millions in North Americans will have a chance to see it,” he said. “NASA often uses celestial events that capture the interest and imagination of the public to promote science education.”

Allen said it’s next to impossible not to get excited about a total solar eclipse.

“Eclipses and partial eclipses are rare, but this is bucket-list-level amazing,” Allen said. “The real excitement is being able to experience this significant astronomical event with the thousands of folks gathered at SIU and fellow observers all across the country.  And when you can share it with people outside the path and give them an opportunity to participate, there is nothing like it.” 

Mayo said a scientific highlight of the event will be using a new and advanced sun-observing system, developed by Lunt Solar Systems. 

“The observing system is for near real-time, ultra-high definition imaging of the eclipse in white light, Hydrogen alpha, and Calcium K wavelengths,” Mayo said. “The images should be stunning and will be broadcast through our NASA EDGE programming.” 

Michelle Nichols, master educator with Adler Planetarium, will be part of the team visiting campus next month. On the day of the eclipse, Nichols will act as a “roaming correspondent” in Saluki Stadium during the NASA coverage. 

“I will be plugged in wherever they need me to talk to the crowd, get individual reactions and lead several quick educational activities,” Nichols said. “So (the May visit) will be the first time that the entire NASA and SIU teams, with me included, will be together to develop the elements of the broadcast. It will be an opportunity to further refine what the organizers will need me to do and when that will happen.” 

Nichols said the eclipse will connect millions of people through shared wonderment and experience, and through the past and present. 

“When you see a total solar eclipse, you are immediately and personally connected to the countless people who have seen them in the past – and you instantly understand why people were awed and frightened of them,” she said. “You are also immediately connected to the concept of the precise alignment of sun, moon, and Earth that makes this possible. It is incredible to be able to share this event with many people gathered together in a large group, so I am especially looking forward to that aspect of this event at SIU.”