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A successful eclipse adventure

ChapleGlenn
Here’s a question for those of you who attended junior high school during the past century: If your school held a science fair, what was your project? Did you make a plaster of Paris volcano that spewed vinegar and baking soda lava? Maybe you planted bean seeds in different soils and monitored their growth?

Young people born in the current century engage in science projects that are far more sophisticated. Consider Arianna Roberts, a soon-to-be eighth-grader at R.J. Grey Junior High in Acton, Massachusetts. Last summer, she took advantage of the Great American Eclipse to capture images of the Sun’s inner corona. Her work would help scientists understand not only the intensity of the corona, but also the motions of coronal inflows and loops, and interactions between the corona and solar prominences.

ASYGC0218_01copy
Arianna Roberts prepares to deliver an eclipse talk to the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston.
Harrison Roberts
To be fair to volcano builders and bean planters, Arianna has 21st-century technology on her side, and she didn’t go it alone. She was part of a project called the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment — Citizen CATE for short. Supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Solar Observatory (NSO), Citizen CATE participants formed a network of 68 stations stretching along the eclipse path from Oregon to South Carolina. The goal was to combine each station’s observations to produce a continuous, 90-minute data set of high-resolution, white light images of the inner corona.

Arianna’s eclipse adventure began in November 2016 when her father, Harrison, who works at MathWorks headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, heard about the project. MathWorks’ MATLAB software was a critical element in the project, and two of his co-workers were participants. Arianna’s enthusiasm upon learning about the program prompted Harrison to call Citizen CATE’s chair, Matthew Penn of the NSO. The good news was that additional sites still needed to be filled, and Arianna ultimately was assigned to a seacoast site at Isle of Palms, South Carolina — literally the last station on the eclipse path. Arianna’s team included her father and her sister, Gabrielle.

Unfortunately, the deadline to apply for a grant to cover equipment costs had passed. For the sake of uniformity, all Citizen CATE stations were required to use the same equipment — telescope and mount, filters, camera system, computer, software, and miscellaneous accessories — at a total price tag of $3,600. Undaunted, Arianna and her father set up a GoFundMe site. That and financial support from the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston (ATMoB) raised the necessary money.

In April 2017, Arianna and other Citizen CATE participants attended a two-day regional training program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Among other things, she learned how to operate and polar align the telescope and apply the software. Back home, she underwent tutoring at MathWorks, received technical counseling from ATMoB member Bruce Berger, and made weekly “dry runs,” sending images to the NSO.


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Bad weather loomed before the August 21 eclipse in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, but the clouds parted for totality and allowed Arianna Roberts to photograph the Sun’s corona.
Harrison Roberts
Eclipse day arrives
Months of planning and preparation plus a long journey to the eclipse site can be all for naught due to one factor: weather. “On the day of the eclipse, the Sun was shrouded with clouds,” says Arianna. “It rained, and we had to move the telescope into the shelter tent. At the last moment, during totality, the clouds broke, and we were able to capture images.”

In the end, she collected almost a minute’s worth of images, which she later uploaded to the NSO. Summarizing her adventure, Arianna adds, “I’m pretty pumped up that we were able to capture some of totality. The eclipse itself was fantastic. Experiencing a total solar eclipse in person is so much better than just looking at pictures of one!”

Amazingly, skies were relatively cloud-free along much of the eclipse path, and a majority of the Citizen CATE stations achieved success. “We got excellent data at our first site on the Pacific and our last site on the Atlantic, so our coverage is as long as it could have been,” Penn says. For updates on Citizen CATE, visit www.citizencate.org.

What does the future hold for this talented young lady? Arianna hasn’t ruled out a career in astronomy, and she already has organized an informal astronomy club at her school. “I’m fascinated by the beauty and mystery of outer space,” she says. “Maria Mitchell is my role model.” Arianna’s eclipse adventure begs the question: What sorts of science projects will 22nd-century middle school students tackle?

Questions, comments, or suggestions? Email me at gchaple@hotmail.com. Next month, we’ll put the finishing touches on the double star marathon and look at some pairs that didn’t make the list.

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