Total solar eclipse to be captured by UC Berkeley researchers, Google

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On August 21, cities across the country such as Salem, Oregon, and Carbondale, Illinois, will plunge into total darkness for about two minutes. The total solar eclipse will be the first to stretch across the United States in almost 100 years and the country’s first total solar eclipse since 1991.

The path of totality is a “narrow band” of complete darkness 60 to 70 miles wide from Oregon to South Carolina, according to Jay Pasachoff, an astronomy professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. Pasachoff is one of the many researchers, professors, students and curious community members who will gather across the country to watch the rare event.

A total solar eclipse is “when the moon totally blocks out the sun” and “when the sun, the moon (and) the earth all line up,” said Carina Cheng, a campus graduate student in the astronomy department. Cheng added that the eclipse is an exciting but rare event because lining up the moon between the sun and earth in the “same inclination” is very difficult.

Campus astronomy professor Alex Filippenko added that in a total solar eclipse, “the moon is perfectly aligned with the sun … and reveals the corona, the sun’s outer atmosphere.”

The Space Sciences Laboratory Multiverse team at UC Berkeley and Google’s Making & Science team are partnering to create the Eclipse Megamovie 2017, a project to make an “expanded and continuous view of the total eclipse as it crosses the United States,” according to their website. More than 1,000 photographers, astronomers and the general public will collect images of the total solar eclipse and the two teams will “stitch these media assets together.”

Total solar eclipses only happen by coincidence — the moon looks almost exactly the same size as the sun in the sky because the sun happens to be 400 times wider than the moon, but it is also 400 times farther away, according to the Eclipse Megamovie website. Therefore, at a precise moment, the moon and sun can cover the same area from view on Earth.

Filippenko helped get the teams together to produce the three- to four-minute Megamovie, which will show the corona — an extremely hot inner layer of the sun’s surface — at different time passages across the country and the structural differences of the corona itself.

The innermost part of the corona is undetectable by spacecraft cameras, but is visible by the human eye during the total solar eclipse, according to Bryan Mendez, a campus astronomer.

Filippenko added that the teams aim to capture this portion of the sun’s surface because the inner corona catalyzes changes in the sun’s outer and middle corona. “Photos taken from the ground look for structural changes (in order to) basically understand the sun’s atmosphere.”

Filippenko described Megamovie as a “citizen scientist project.” The teams are looking for help from anyone and are asking for people to submit their photos so the images can be studied and formed into a movie. The collected data will then be made publicly available.

By downloading a free app — Eclipse Megamovie Mobile Total Solar Eclipse 2017 — users can enjoy the eclipse while simultaneously capturing it on their phone. The app starts taking photos about 15 seconds before totality, and continues afterwards.

Filippenko said he has witnessed too many people “fiddling with cameras only (to) capture part of the phenomenon. If you spend too much time fiddling with the camera, you will miss out on the experience.”

The best way to watch the eclipse is to go to a point along the path of totality, which touches a total of 14 states, according to Laura Peticolas, a senior fellow at the campus Space Sciences Laboratory.

For the spontaneous road trippers, Peticolas said there is still room for view in between Nebraska and Wyoming, but warned that “Oregon is just a mess.” When the eclipse happens, Oregon is said to be hosting an additional 20 percent of the current population, according to Peticolas.

Even if one cannot go to a city along the path of totality, there are many tips in order to get the most from watching the eclipse in Berkeley. There will be a partial eclipse throughout the country, including Berkeley, and “it will be a significant partial (eclipse),” Peticolas added. In Berkeley, the partial eclipse begins at 8:45 a.m., peaks at 10:15 a.m. and ends at 11:45 a.m., according to the Eclipse Megamovie Simulator.

To view the eclipse, Filippenko said, “Sunglasses won’t work. You need to use the solar-eclipse-approved filter,” which is sold by distributors in the form of glasses.

Filippenko, who has seen 15 total solar eclipses altogether, said there is no way to describe the experience, and when anyone tries to, “(they) sound like lunatics,” pun intended.

Contact Maya Ng-Yu at [email protected]