Southeast Faculty, Students Gear Up for Solar Eclipse Citizen CATE Project

On a recent evening on the Southeast Missouri State University campus, seniors Jordan Duncan, Sam Fincher and Taylor Shivelbine made adjustments to an 80 millimeter diameter, 500 millimeter focal length refractor telescope.

Lunar observing procedures require they perfectly align their telescope and camera with the center of the moon – holding it steady for two minutes and 40 seconds.

“It’s drifting to the left,” said Fincher, pointing to the moon’s image on the laptop.

Fincher and Duncan calculated which way to adjust the telescope’s lens, while Shivelbine watched the moon slowly become recentered on the screen.

The students are part of a team led by Dr. Peggy Hill, Southeast professor of physics, and Dr. Mike Rodgers, Southeast professor of chemistry, participating in the Citizen Continental America Telescopic Eclipse (CATE) project to observe the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

They are one of 70 citizen-astronomer groups located along the path of totality across the United States to take images and video of the inner solar corona. The team will be located at the Perryville (Missouri) Municipal Airport, where totality is expected to last two minutes and 40 seconds. Other nearby sites include Bald Knob, Illinois; Carbondale, Illinois; Giant City State Park, Makanda, Illinois; Hermann, Missouri; and Hillsboro, Missouri.

“The idea for this project is amazing,” Hill said. “Our work combined with data from all the other sites will be stitched together into one video.”

The 90-minutes video will provide scientists and solar enthusiasts the opportunity to see the sun in a whole new light.

“There are changes that happen in the solar corona that take place on timescales ranging from five to 15 minutes,” Hill said. “This video will allow us to fully observe and study those occurrences.”

Some of these studies include examining the corona’s polar plumes, magnetic field, flares and coronal mass ejections, and magnetic instabilities.

“The data collected during these events will allow us to better understand them,” Hill said. “That in turn allows us to better understand the relationship between the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar atmosphere.”

Dr. Mike Rodgers and Dr. Peggy Hill (back, center) and Southeast students (from left to right) Taylor Shivelbine, Sam Fincher and Jordan Duncan conduct a lunar observation in preparation for the Citizen CATE Project Aug. 21.

To prepare, the Southeast team has been meeting two or three times a week since May and participating in scheduled solar and lunar imaging sessions, to practice procedures issued by the Citizen CATE coordinators.

“We upload the data to our Google Drive for the regional coordinators to take a look at,” Hill said. “They then give us feedback on what we are doing well or need to improve.”

The students are learning how to focus the telescope while viewing the well-defined edge of the sun. Lunar imaging sessions, like the recent observation, allow the students to practice for what they’ll experience on Aug. 21, said Rodgers.

“The light intensity of the solar corona during totality is similar to a full moon,” he said. “While this (recent) observation was a little prior to the moon’s first quarter, the students still get experience with reduced light intensity.”

Lunar observations also provide opportunities for the students to practice focusing on a shape and size the sun will be on Aug. 21 because the moon’s size is the same as the solar disk.

Practice now makes for perfection later. The images and video they take on Aug. 21 must be close to  perfect to mesh with images taken at other sites as part of  the Citizen CATE experiment, said Rodgers.

“The eclipse is not going to wait for us,” Rodgers said. “Our goal is to become so familiar with the telescope and procedures, it’s just automatic that day. Then the students can look ahead and anticipate errors, and make corrections beforehand.”

Thus far, the team has conducted four scheduled imaging sessions, and have four more before Aug. 21.

Hill said she’s been surprised and impressed with the team’s accomplishments.

“The students are amazing, and they’ve really taken the lead,” she said. “They ask great questions, and are so curious, even beyond what is necessary for this project.”

Every component of the project has been a learning process, from figuring out how to use the telescope and its camera, to the project’s computer programs and procedures, said Hill.

Southeast student Jordan Duncan and Sam Fincher take photos and video of the moon during a recent lunar observation session to practice for the total solar eclipse Aug. 21.

Working together has been the key to their progressive success, and they’re getting really good, Rodgers said.

“Some of this is difficult to figure out by yourself,” Duncan said. “It’s nice working with people that have the same interest but each of us thinks about the problems and processes information differently, coming together to find solutions.”

Their differences have made the team stronger, agreed Shivelbine.

“It’s nice to interact with students from different fields,” she said.

Their combined efforts and dedication has been a unique experience, said Hill.

“They are really talented,” she said. “You can just watch them and see they know what they’re doing. If they do it right, all I have to do is sit back and watch them work.”

The Southeast team includes Duncan, a physics major with a mathematics minor from Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Fincher, a physics major with a mathematics minor from Pacific, Missouri; Sammy Hasler, a junior biology major with physics and mathematics minors from Waterloo, Illinois; Tyler Howard, a senior double major in physics and engineering physics with a mathematics minor from Bartlett, Tennessee; Ben Nielson a senior double major in physics and engineering physics with a mathematics minor from Sikeson, Missouri; and Shivelbine, a physics education major from Cape Girardeau.

The project has also provided learning opportunities for the students outside the classroom and experience they can talk about when applying for graduate schools or jobs, Rodgers said.

“Doing the science is more interesting than reading about it in a textbook,” Duncan said.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us,” Shivelbine said.

For now, the team is focused on the next observing session and putting all their efforts into the perfect two minutes and 40 seconds.

“I’m really looking forward to watching the final video and seeing the product of all our work,” Fincher said.

For more information about the Citizen CATE Experiment, visit https://sites.google.com/site/citizencateexperiment/home.

For more information about events occurring Aug. 21 at Southeast, visit eclipse.semo.edu.