WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Experience eclipse with these citizen science experiments

Posted July 21
Updated August 15

We are just one month away from the Aug 21, 2017, total solar eclipse. As Elizabeth Gardner discussed with a NASA scientist, you don't have to just watch, you can get involved.

There are numerous citizen science projects you can get involved with. Your reports, sent back to NASA, will also be combined with others from across the country providing valuable data for scientists.

Measuring the dimming of the daylight

While this will be more pronounced when observed from the path of totality, here in Raleigh, the sky will darken as 93 percent of the sun is covered.

You can use the camera on your smartphone or tablet to take light measurements throughout the nearly three hours of the eclipse. Free apps such as Lux Meter for IOS and Light Meter for Android measure brightness.

You can also indirectly measure the amount of ambient light available with a downloadable chart from the Rice Space Institute (no relation). You might be surprised at quickly you must rely on the larger fonts. This is a great interactive activity to try with younger kids.

Graph your results throughout the eclipse and share them with WRAL. You can also report your observations to iseechange.org for comparison against satellite data.

Eclipse photography

Measuring temperature change

As the sunlight fades, the temperature drops and then rises again as the sun remerges from behind the moon. Previous eclipses have produced temperature differences of nearly 15 degrees. What you experience on Aug. 21 will depend on your location (how much of the sun is covered) and the weather that day. This is a great experiment to do with kids, the bigger the group the better.

You’ll need a thermometer, of course, and if you’d like to use your tablet or smartphone, you’ll likely need and external thermosensor. The sensors built into phones aren't made for this kind of measurement and are affected by the heat of the phone itself. The temperature being reported in your favorite weather app is likely being measured at the RDU airport and coming to your phone via the internet, so it doesn’t do much good here.

Beginning two hours before the eclipse, take readings every 10 minutes. Starting 30 minutes before the maximum eclipse (about 2:15 p.m.) and for the next hour, take readings very 5 minutes.

Report your findings to the Globe Observer Program.

Eclipse MegaMovie

Sponsors Google and the University of California Berkley plan to take advantage of the prediction that this eclipse will be the most photographed in history.

This first-of-its-kind citizen science project will collect video from points all along the path of totality. Video from more than a thousand participants will be edited down into a 90-minute long MegaMovie providing a view of the sun's corona that has never been seen before.

Exploring shadow bands

This experiment requires you be in totality but might just help solve a long standing mystery.

Scientists still don’t fully understand these mysterious bands of shadow race across the landscape in the seconds before totality. Thin wavy lines of alternating light and dark that can be seen flickering on light, solid colored surfaces just before and after totality.

They are believed to be caused by rising and falling air between the observer and the upper atmosphere. Turbulent cells of air which act as lenses, focusing and de-focusing the edge of light just before totality. The phenomenon is not unlike what makes stars twinkle.

They were captured on iPhone video on the side of a white car in Australia during the November 14, 2012, eclipse. You can help scientists better understand this phenomenon by photographing it yourself.

All you need is a pure white surface such as a poster board. Lay a ruler on the board for scale. Shoot a minute or so of video before and after totality or depress the shutter on your digital camera (in sports mode) or on your smartphone to take a series of images. Share your findings on social media with #ShadowBands and #Eclipse2017

Mobile apps

If you are just looking for a way to follow along with the eclipse, a number of apps are now showing up in the iTunes and Google Play stores. There are enough good free ones that you shouldn’t have to pay for an app up front or through an in app purchase.

The Smithsonian Solar Eclipse app which is available for IOS and Android features a countdown, interactive maps and eclipse times. It also has access to the most recent images of the sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

The Exploratorium’s Solar Eclipse 2017 app incorporates live streams of telescopic views from Oregon and Wyoming narrated by scientists in English and Spanish. You can wind down a bit with a telescopic view with accompaniment by the Kronos Quartet, a string quartet based not far from the Exploratorium’s San Francisco location.

The NASA App will feature streaming video from locations across the country.

The WRAL News app will also include live streams during the event including a view from totality with Greg Fishel in the Smokey Mountains.


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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