SEABROOK – Millions around the country looked skyward on Monday for the total solar eclipse. Scientists at the Greenbelt-based NASA Goddard Space Flight Center were among them, and used the opportunity to pursue cutting-edge science.
On Aug. 21, the total solar eclipse was visible throughout the continental United States, the first time since 1979 a total eclipse was visible in the U.S. and the first time since 1918 it crossed the country. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, obscuring the sun and casting a shadow over the planet. However, not all areas saw totality, or the period where the entire visible surface of the sun was covered by the moon. Here in Prince George’s County, the eclipse maxed out at around 81 percent totality at 2:42 p.m. Residents gathered in backyards, office parking lots and libraries to witness the event.
The Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS) hosted eclipse viewing parties at branches from Beltsville to Oxon Hill. Viewing glasses were donated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), although demand exceeded supply and children were given priority.
“The library staff did an amazing job of hosting eclipse parties and events for more than 3,500 people,” said interim co-Chief Executive Officer of PGCMLS Michelle Hamiel. “It was a delight watching the children experience an eclipse for the first time. We cannot wait for 2024.”
In 2024, a total solar eclipse will occur on April 8, with the D.C. metro area able to witness up to 85 percent totality.
County Executive Rushern Baker, III was among the county residents who took in the eclipse. He also highlighted the role Prince George’s County plays in eclipse science.
“Our county plays a unique role in the history, present and future earth, space and sun exploration and science. As home to NASA Goddard, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Prince George’s County has been and will continue to be ‘ground zero’ for our nation’s and planet’s unwavering dedication to discovery,” he said.
Eclipses provide unique opportunities for scientists, including those at Goddard, to study the sun and the earth in ways not possible at other times.
“This is the first eclipse in almost 100 years that’s covering the entire country and that’s going to be a game changer for eclipse science, both for studying the sun and what’s happening here on Earth,” said Alex Young, a solar scientist at Goddard. “Sports-viewing was essentially revolutionized by having cameras that could follow a player from start to finish. That’s a little like what scientists can do during this eclipse.”
The eclipse provided opportunities for Goddard-based scientists in the fields of heliophysics- the study of the effects of the sun on the rest of the solar system- earth science and moon observation, according to Lina Tran, a heliophysics writer at Goddard. Scientists there were also involved in modeling in the lead-up to the eclipse.
“A vast majority of the eclipse visualizations were done by Ernie Wright of NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio,” she said via email.
During the eclipse, other scientists were busy taking advantage of the unique conditions. Project scientists working with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, based at Goddard, photographed the moon’s shadow passing over the earth during the eclipse.
Another imaging system, known as the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera, allowed scientists to study the impacts of the moon’s shadow on the amount of energy from the Sun our planet receives. Jay Herman, who works at Goddard, is the lead on the project, and traveled to Wyoming with colleague Guoyong Wen during the eclipse. The energy that drives Earth’s weather and climate comes from the sun, but clouds can deflect or block some of that incoming energy, similar to the way the moon blocks it in an eclipse. The eclipse allowed scientists to take measurements and test a new mathematical technique for modeling how clouds, among other factors, influence the amount of solar energy reaching the surface. Scientists hope the new technique will be useful in climate and energy studies.
Another Goddard scientist, Nat Gopalswamy, led a team of scientists to Madras, Ore., during the eclipse to study the sun more in-depth. The corona is a “crown” of plasma that surrounds stars, including earth’s sun. It is much hotter than the surface of the star and contributes to weather in space, as well as on earth, but it is unable to be observed without a special instrument called a coronagraph. Gopalswamy and his team tested a new type of polarization camera during the eclipse to capture data on this portion of the sun. The new camera incorporates thousands of filters to read light from different directions simultaneously, which could be used to improve the coronagraphs. The experiment required six people and gathered data on the temperature and speed of solar material moving in the corona using four different wavelengths.