How to experience the solar eclipse like a scientist

Two GMU scientists want you to do more than just Instagram the thrilling natural phenomenon.

solar eclipse
Photo courtesy of Ig0rZh/AdobeStock

George Mason University’s Dr. Laura Lukes and Dr. Jill Nelson are heading up local efforts for the crowdsourced EclipseMob project, which aims to involve citizens in gathering scientific data before, during and after the roughly three minutes the total solar eclipse will take place on Aug. 21.

The sky will noticeably darken, and the temperature will drop slightly, but in the past the average citizen couldn’t measure the disturbance in the earth’s ionosphere the eclipse creates without proper equipment. EclipseMob is changing that. EclipseMob is dispersing the necessary materials and tools so anyone can create their own low-frequency radio wave propagation experiment to collect data.

“The EclipseMob kits were designed by engineering students at UMass-Boston to be low-cost and not require prior electronics knowledge or skills,” Lukes says. “It’s one of the unique aspects of this project.”

The kits include the pieces needed to build a working antenna-and-receiver system, and the EclipseMob website offers instructions on how to put it all together. The DIY receiver system connects to smartphones so the information collected can be transferred as an audio file through the headphone jack to the EclipseMob app, which will be available for Apple and Android devices.

“Even without understanding the science behind the eclipse or radio waves, there’s nothing like putting together wires and batteries yourself and seeing it pick up that signal on your phone for the first time,” Lukes says. “It makes you want to explore, try to build other circuits and understand how it all works.”

The EclipseMob antenna picks up low-frequency radio wave signals and the receiver—an electronic breadboard—inputs the signal to the smartphone. The EclipseMob app converts the audio file into data that scientists can study to discern how the signals behaved and interacted with the ionosphere in different areas of the country.

Scientists like Lukes and Nelson are encouraging everyone to participate in EclipseMob, as the data collected will prove incredibly useful.

“Most of earth’s surface is covered by oceans, so when eclipses do occur, their shadows often fall on the water where there are no people to collect data,” Lukes says. “This is one of the affordances of conducting a nationwide citizen science experiment like this. By involving the public in collecting the data, we can collect many more data points than we could if scientists in universities and research labs alone were collecting the data.  If the experiment works out, this will be the largest study of this kind during a solar eclipse to date.”

In order to gather as much information about the eclipse as possible, Lukes recommends setting up the EclipseMob antenna-and-receiver system before the eclipse so it can collect data before, during and afterward. While the system is running, participants can experience the wonder of the eclipse while it’s happening. And even though Northern Virginia isn’t one of the locations within prime viewing of the eclipse, Lukes says that data will still be helpful.

“We need data from all over the U.S., so participants don’t need to be in the path of totality to collect data,” Lukes says.

However, everyone planning on observing the eclipse should be prepared with the right eyewear safety gear. Viewers should either wear special protective glasses (NASA offers guidelines for what kinds of glasses to buy) or create a pinhole eclipse viewer (find directions on how to build your own right here).

To learn more about solar eclipses, Lukes recommends this animation of the eclipse’s path, this interactive map that determines what each person will see based on his or her location and these free archived webinars about the EclipseMob project.