Williams College team brings eclipse science home

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WILLIAMSTOWN — They spent the summer training for one of their most important assignments yet: to monitor, document and analyze data from one of the biggest solar events of the year.

"We spent at least eight hours a day together, working to get things right, so we definitely bonded as a group," said Charles Ide, a rising sophomore from Natick who is studying at Williams College.

He was one of eight Williams undergraduate students selected to train for and participate in a summer expedition, culminating with a trip to Salem, Ore. to document the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse from an observation station set up at Willamette University.

While lunar and solar eclipses happen on a fairly regular basis, the Aug. 21 solar eclipse was unique in that it was the first time in nearly a century that a total eclipse would pass over the entire continental United States. Typically, eclipses can only be see from remote areas or only from the middle of an ocean. Thus, the Aug. 21 one earning the title of "The Great American Eclipse."

"This whole summer we've basically been eclipse ambassadors," said Brendan Rosseau, a rising junior from Glen Ellyn, Ill. Back in the spring, he accompanied Williams College astronomer and expedition leader, Jay Pasachoff, to Williamstown Elementary School, and other area classrooms to share their enthusiasm about science in advent of this astronomical phenomenon.

"I've been taking classes on the sun all semester to prepare for this," said Erin Meadors, a rising sophomore from Albuquerque, N.M. "It's an amazing experience to all be in the same spot working with alumni and experts and your friends in this field."

"Everyone we talked to were really interested. Most people from the Berkshires weren't going to see it as we are today," Rosseau told The Eagle while manning a telescope on eclipse day. "But that's why we're here, to bring back it back to our hometown. This is what it's all about. We did it together, and we did it for our community."

The expedition team has collected thousands of data points, all which have to be analyzed, compared with other data sets from other eclipses, and put into context.

Ross Yu, a rising junior from Huntington Beach, Calif., co-operated a specially filtered telescope system with Michael Person, a research scientist and director of the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory for the department of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We're basically trying to prove a magnetic wave hypothesis," Yu said.

Astronomers and other scientists are trying to, essentially, figure out how the sun's outer atmosphere, its corona, can heat into the millions of degrees, while the surface below it significantly cooler, in the low thousands of degrees.

"You can't heat something with something cooler than it, so it's a mystery," Person explained.

Using POETS (Portable Occultation, Eclipse, and Transit System), the telescope and camera system he and Yu set up, they worked to filter and isolate certain spectra of the sun to produce images of motion patterns of the sun's magnetic field, which may ultimately indicate how heat is conducted by the corona.

Pasachoff also works with atmospheric scientists Marcos Pe aloza-Murillo of the University of the Andes in Merida, Venezuela, who had been a Fulbright Fellow at Williams College five years ago, and Michael Thomas Roman of the University of Michigan to understand the effect of the abrupt shutting off of incident sunlight by the onset of totality on Earth's wind, temperature, pressure, and other weather aspects.

"One of my granddaughters recorded a temperature drop of at least 12 degrees, as part of her elementary-school project; we have scans from our professional-level weather station to study," Pasachoff said.

In addition, the team made photometric measurements of the sky to study its brightness, in different directions including the zenith, to see how dark the sky will be.

"It will take many months now to study, but we have what we came for," Pasachoff said.

Rousseau hopes that he and his fellow students this fall can share their experiences and findings with others on campus and in neighboring communities.

Pasachoff's expedition had numerous affiliations within the scientific community and his team's work, which included dozens of other colleagues from around the globe, will contribute to both scholarly and citizen science initiatives.

The Williams College Aug. 21 undergrad solar eclipse team

Class of 2019: Cielo Perez of Dallas; Brendan Rosseau of Glen Ellyn, Ill., Ross Yu of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Class of 2020: Declan Daly of Seattle, Charles Ide of Natick, Christian Lockwood of Quogue, Long Island, N.Y.; Connor Marti of Cranford, N.J.; Erin Meadors of Albuquerque, N.M.

Four of the students are supported by Professor Jay Pasachoff's National Science Foundation grant; others received funds from the NASA Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, Sigma Xi (the honorary scientific society), the Clare Booth Luce Foundation, and Williams College, including the Freeman Foote Expeditionary Fund.

Where to find their work:

- In collaboration with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, a combination of space observations at the time of the eclipse with the Williams team's composite images emphasizing coronal structure was released by NASA at: nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2017/aug-21-solar-eclipse-from-ground-and-space

- PBS's NOVA "Eclipse Across America": pbs.org/wgbh/nova/space/eclipse-over-america.html

- The New York Times's science reporter Dennis Overbye helped coordinate 360 observations also from their site. More highlights at nytimes.com

- Megamovie project (http://eclipsemega.movie), in which people across the country — "citizen scientists" — submitted their images and videos to a Google-aided system, to be available to all. Preliminary movies from smart phones and, separately, from regular cameras are already available, and will be continually improving.

- Pasachoff runs a website at http://eclipses.info for the Working Group on Solar Eclipses of the International Astronomical Union.

- Pasachoff's His website at http://totalsolareclipse.org includes images and other materials from his past eclipse expeditions.

- Images from this expedition: http://sites.williams.edu/eclipse/2017-usa/

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