12 March 2018

The Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse (CATE) Experiment

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Matt Penn and Carol Haden

A nervous shiver traveled down my spine as I stood on the track at Weiser High School.  There on our CATE computer display we could see that a small chunk of the Sun was blocked by the disk of the moon.  After years of practice, more than 200 volunteers were lined up across the country with 68 sets of identical equipment, about to put their training to use on this special day, 21 August 2017.

At any one spot during a total solar eclipse, you can see the inner corona of the Sun for a few minutes.  But since the Sun is so big, it’s difficult to see changes in the solar atmosphere during such a short time.  For many years leading up to 2017, my colleagues had pointed out that during the August eclipse the moon’s shadow spent more than 90 minutes crossing the country, and with the right type of experiment, this event would allow us to study the inner solar corona in a new way.  Several citizen science programs were launched for this eclipse, and we’re thrilled to have led one of them, the Citizen CATE Experiment.

Eclipse day was amazing!  CATE volunteers collected images of the solar corona for 83 of the 93 minutes that were available, and CATE has produced a completely new type of science data set.  The training program that we established using state coordinators and student teams had worked, and our groups succeeded.  In the words of one site leader:

After practicing on our own for four months, it was exciting to get to share our experience on eclipse day with three teams of dedicated and experienced scientists. My students and I will never forget our efforts and satisfaction of doing a good job preparing for and producing our image data.

Because of the private, corporate and federal support for this project, each volunteer group has kept their CATE equipment.  Many groups are using them for public outreach activities, education work, and some for science research.  The Citizen CATE Experiment will continue to have an impact with these groups and others, long after the 2017 eclipse is over.

– Matt Penn is with Raytheon Missile Systems and Carol Haden is with Magnolia Consulting LLC