A total solar eclipse will be visible in northern Maine for three-and-a-half minutes on April 8. That provides a short and rare opportunity to gather scientific data on this major astronomical event, and Shawn Laatsch, director of the Versant Power Astronomy Center at the University of Maine, is preparing to have high schoolers and other members of the general public involved in that work.
Laatsch is coordinating plans, equipment and training for citizen scientists in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania for the Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse (CATE) experiment, a nationwide research project focusing on the 2024 solar eclipse led by Southwest Research Institute. He also recruited UMaine Ph.D. student Nikita Saini to provide training in Maine and San Antonio, where participants nationwide will congregate for instruction in January.
“A big part of this project for me is hopefully helping people get outside more and pay attention to their natural surroundings; pay attention to when these very special observational events come up,” Laatsch says. “We last had a total solar eclipse here in the state in 1963. We won’t get it again here until 2079.”
Teams of citizen scientists located across 35 stations from Texas to Maine will receive 80-millimeter telescopes with specialized cameras to capture data and images of the eclipse. Laatsch says there will be at least one team in Maine stationed at Jackman, which is expected to have the best views of the eclipse in the state.
The eclipse will be visible for spectators located in certain portions of the southern, midwestern and northeastern U.S., as well as other parts of North America, according to NASA.
While solar eclipses typically take over 2 hours from start to finish, Laatsch says it totality itself only lasts a few minutes at each location. Having numerous research groups spread across the country helps ensure that the entire U.S. path of the eclipse is photographed, particularly if certain areas experience cloudy skies. The research team will use the photos to create an hour-long video of the eclipse.
The citizen science teams will be formed through outreach to various high schools, community groups, planetariums and science centers, which will keep the telescopes provided for the project for their own astronomy projects in the future, Laatsch says.
“It could be really educational, and hopefully get them more interested in science in general,” Saini says. “That’s kind of a hard thing to get kids really into these days, but giving them some hands-on experience is a great way to get them excited.”
The images will provide light data on the sun’s atmosphere, or corona. The corona is only visible during total solar eclipses — it’s the ring of light surrounding the moon when it blocks the sun. Through the light data from these images, the research team hopes to learn more about how the corona changes over time and what influences its shape and temperature, according to the Southwest Research Institute.
Learning more about the corona also provides greater insight into how it affects Earth, including the ways in which solar winds it emits influence the aurora borealis and inhibit satellite communications. Other scientific revelations have been made possible through investigating the sun’s atmosphere.
“It was from studying the corona in 1868 that the element of helium was discovered,” Laatsch says. “Also from studying solar eclipses back in 1919, it was used to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. So there’s a lot of science that happens during total eclipses — looking at the polarity of the corona; a whole variety of sciences that help us understand the Sun.”
The Versant Power Astronomy Center is selling solar eclipse glasses at $2 per pair for the total eclipse in April and the partial eclipse on Oct. 14. The center will also feature various programs about solar eclipses, starting with “ECLIPSE: The Moments of Wonder” showing at 7 p.m. on Fridays in September.
“A total solar eclipse truly is a magical thing,” Laatsch says. “Darkness in the middle of the day. The sky has a weird color. You see bright planets out, and some of the brighter stars. The temperature drops. Animals get confused and will quiet down. The wind picks up as you get a sudden temperature change. It’s a really dramatic thing.”
Contact: Marcus Wolf, 207.581.3721; firstname.lastname@example.org