Citizen CATE Q+A with State Coordinator Jackie Bellefontaine

By MWOBS Staff

On April 8th the moon passes between the Sun and the Earth and will completely block out the sun in portions of the United States, including northern New England, creating a rare spectacle that won’t be seen again in our region until 2079. While the summit of Mount Washington won’t be in the path of totality, we are excited to have our School Programs Coordinator Jackie Bellefontaine serve as a state coordinator for the NASA-funded Citizen Continental-America Telescope Eclipse (CATE) experiment that brings together 35 teams of local community or “citizen scientists” that are in the path of totality spanning across southern Texas to northern Maine. These citizen scientists will be “chasing the total solar eclipse” and making polarized observations of the Sun’s corona. The result will be a 60-minute movie of totality that will help answer exciting solar science questions! 

Jackie will help support a team on the ground at Pittsburg Public School, New Hampshire, with the public encouraged to join in the inquiry. We recently spoke with Jackie about the project and ways for eclipse viewers to join in on citizen science opportunities around the event. 

Q: Jackie, can you explain a bit about your role as NH/VT/ME Coordinator for the project? What are you most looking forward to? 

I was recruited by CATE’s New England Regional Coordinator, Shawn Laatsch (UMaine Versant Astronomy Center) to serve as the NH/VT/ME State Coordinator. With Shawn being up in Maine, I focused mostly on recruiting and training teams of citizen scientists for Vermont and New Hampshire. Once the NH and VT teams were recruited, I hosted a training workshop at MWOBS’ administrative offices in North Conway, which was an awesome experience! The local teams are incredibly passionate about the project and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this exciting citizen science in action.

Recent training in North Conway, NH.

Q: What kind of equipment does the team use? 

Each team from Texas to Maine were given identical telescopes, mounts and cameras by CATE. This next generation equipment will allow teams to capture high-speed polarization measurements. After the eclipse, the telescopes and associated equipment will be donated to the teams for them to take back to their communities for future outreach.

Q: Why are extended polarized observations of the Sun’s corona during the total eclipse important?

Eclipses provided unique opportunities to study the Sun’s corona, the outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere. Solar physicists are especially interested in the middle layer of the corona, as the middle corona is a region that sets the connectivity of solar surface magnetic structures and the solar wind. However, the transitions between these are not fully understood. Through CATE, scientists aim to determine the magnetic connectivity of the middle corona, measure the growing solar wind flow, and characterize reconnection in the middle corona. This is all important as it will aid our understanding of solar winds and coronal mass ejections, which can significantly impact our civilization, our satellites, and space exploration.  

It’s very difficult to collect middle corona data without a total solar eclipse, as it is too faint for ground-based and satellite observations. During totality, the Moon completely blocks the incoming light from the sun and with the Sun’s main light masked, the dimmer corona is much more visible— An exciting opportunity for scientists to collect data! 

Additionally, CATE will be capturing polarized observations. Polarization is important as it allows scientists to get a better sense of where light is coming from. In white light, the corona looks 2D, but really, the structure is 3D. Knowing where the corona is coming from will help scientists better understand coronal dynamics.  


Q: Are there more opportunities for eclipse viewers to take part in research activities? 

Yes! We are working with schools and groups around the region to share out other learning opportunities related to the eclipse, including sharing your own cloud, temperature and sound observations before, during, and after the eclipse through NASA’s GLOBE Observer app. (The app is free in Google Play or the Apple Store; anyone age 13 or older can use it/younger children may collect eclipse data with a parent or teacher). Training is in the app, so no prior experience is necessary, though I’d suggest downloading and getting familiar with it ahead of time to make the most of it. Also, be sure to join MWOBS for one of our upcoming programs and learn how you can contribute to advancing our understanding of Earth’s weather and climate!

This American Meteorological write-up highlights more ways to participate in citizen science while viewing the upcoming solar eclipse (webinar here). From sketching the shape of the sun to photographing the corona during totality, there are so many ways to get involved and be a part of the research happening on April 8, and for many of these opportunities, findings can be submitted through an app on your phone.

Jackie at Southwest Research Institute’s Citizen CATE training.

 

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