Group of people standing around a telescope while looking at the camera.

SIU faculty and staff leaders of a project that will equip, coordinate and train teams of student eclipse observers across North America to play a vital role in NASA’s plans to study the total eclipse in April are, from left, Bob Baer, Karla Berry, Cori Brevik and Harvey Henson. At far right is Chris Mandrell, a graduate student in physics and research assistant with the university’s STEM Education Research Center. The DEB project and associated grants will provide about $530,000, not including private donations, or enough fund 70 observer teams. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

July 19, 2023

SIU leads nationwide NASA project to gather data from sun during 2024 eclipse

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will equip, coordinate and train teams of student eclipse observers across North America, playing a vital role in NASA’s plans to study the rare celestial event in April.

The team of SIU researchers, led by co-principal investigators Bob Baer and Matt Penn, will use a two-year, $314,000 NASA grant for the Dynamic Eclipse Broadcast Initiative (DEB) effort. The citizen science project will have more than 40 teams largely made up of high school and middle school students – in sites spanning from Mexico up through the United States and into Canada – use telescopes to provide critical coronal data as the moon’s shadow traverses the continent.

The effort not only will result in valuable data but also real-time views streamed online and broadcasted in cooperation with NASA EDGE.

“We’ll be fulfilling NASA’s citizen science strategy by engaging a diverse, emerging group of citizen scientists as volunteer observation teams,” Baer said. “By including volunteers outside the path of totality, we include the majority of Americans in our potential volunteer base.”

Baer, a specialist, and Penn, an adjunct assistant professor of practice, both in in the School of Physics and Applied Physics, are leading the effort along with other SIU faculty and other universities.

Baer and Harvey Henson, director of the STEM Education Research Center, are leading an additional grant contributing to DEB and funded by the National Science Foundation. SIU’s subaward on the grant led by Cosmic Pictures, the filmmakers of “Einstein’s Incredible Universe,” an IMAX movie that focused on the 2017 total eclipse, will push the value of SIU’s DEB effort up to more than $530,000, not including additional private donations.

Altogether, enough funding exists for 70 DEB teams, Baer said.

“Citizen science projects like this one get the public involved and excited about doing science in a big way,” Baer said. “This one is especially cool, because the volunteers will be collecting real data for NASA.”

A big job

So far, about 25 teams are in place, with many more to go, Baer said. Each team includes about five members and a team leader. The teams are strategically located in or near the path of the April 8 total eclipse and are often associated with a nearby university or community college.

A diversity aspect of SIU’s effort will specifically aim to create, equip and train 20 teams made up of middle school-age girls, in an effort to spark their interest in science.

The grant money is paying for dozens of 40mm telescopes to equip each team, and about 10 teams already have received their telescopes and are training with them. Baer is now working with manufacturers to provide the balance of the scopes needed.

On eclipse day, the teams will use the telescopes – each less than one foot long – to observe and record coronal activity that is only visible during totality. The grant money also is purchasing astrophotography cameras to fit each scope and capture important images.

Baer and Henson also are helping create printed materials and videos, aimed at training each team leader – usually a college student or other adult. This fall, the leaders will begin training the team members to operate the equipment and collect images and data.

The first teams will have a chance to test their skills during an annular eclipse in October. Even though such an event does not provide the opportunities to collect coronal data as a total eclipse event, Baer said, the teams can still make direct disc observations of the sun and collect important data, while becoming more familiar with their equipment.

“We’ll get a lot of science out of that,” he said. “We’re getting people involved and interested.”

DEB builds on 2017 project

SIU lies directly in the path of totality for the April 8 eclipse, just as it previously did in 2017, making the university and the area the eclipse crossroads.

During the 2017 eclipse, SIU also was involved in the Continental-American Telescopic Eclipse Experiment, another nationwide telescope network of citizen scientists. The effort was led by Penn, who at the time was an astronomer with the National Solar Observatory.

The Citizen CATE Experiment included about 70 observation teams nationwide, roughly one every 40 miles along the path of the 2017 eclipse. Baer, who also is co-chairing SIU’s eclipse committee this time around, acted as a coordinator for several Southern Illinois CATE teams, including teams at Pope County High School, Giant City State Park, the Bald Knob Cross of Peace, SIU and the airport in Perryville, Missouri.

“CATE was the most popular citizen science project in 2017,” said Baer, adding that his co-PI, Penn, reported before Congress on the effort’s success. “DEB is a follow-on project to Penn’s CATE. We’re taking what was good and improving upon it.”

SIU research team makes it work

Along with Baer and Penn – a physicist who studies the sun and the main science officer in the effort – several other SIU faculty members also are heavily involved in the project. Cori Brevik, assistant professor of practice in the School of Physics and Applied Physics, is focusing on recruiting and organizing the dozens of teams, while Henson is focused on developing training and research materials. Karla Berry, associate professor in the School of Media Arts, is assisting with digital content creation.

“This is very much a team effort, here at SIU,” Baer said. “We have very dedicated researchers and scholars who are giving their all to get ready for this event.”

SIU also is partnering with faculty at the University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Moorhead State University, California State University-Northridge, Vincennes University, Westminster College and Langara College in Canada.