Have you heard? A total solar eclipse is coming to the United States this month. And science-deniers aren't even denying it! It's going to be huge.
On Monday, Aug. 21, everyone in North America will have the opportunity experience at least a partial eclipse, with a 70-mile-wide (113-kilometer-wide) band between Oregon and South Carolina experiencing the "path of totality" — complete, twilight-esque darkness for up to two-and-a-half minutes in the middle of the day. The eclipse will arrive on U.S. shores on the west coast at 10:15 a.m. PDT, and exit off the coast of South Carolina at 2:50 p.m. EDT.
The last time a total solar eclipse blazed an inky trail across the entirety of the continental U.S. was in June of 1918, before you even had to say "continental U.S." because Hawaii and Alaska weren't states. So it's been a while. And in the past 100 years, scientists have developed significantly more tools for collecting eclipse data. One super-important tool? The internet, which can potentially harness the observational power of hundreds of millions humans. If you will be on U.S. soil during the eclipse, you can help collect data on this astronomical event — all you'll need is NASA's GLOBE Observer app downloaded to a smartphone, and a thermometer.
NASA is using the total eclipse to find out more about how energy is absorbed and reflected in our atmosphere. Since our planet is solar powered, how much sunlight actually makes it to the Earth's surface is an interesting question, but it's tough to measure. Clouds have a lot to do with how much solar radiation either makes it to the ground, is absorbed by cloud cover or is bounced back into space. But it's tough to quantify that information because clouds vary in thickness, size and shape. But you know what can block solar radiation, and also has well-known light-blocking properties and a consistent size? The moon.
By measuring air and surface temperature and cloud cover at points all over the country, in and out of the "path of totality," NASA hopes data collected by citizen scientists can help us understand the effect of eclipses on the atmosphere. Here's a NASA video detailing what they hope to learn from the celestial phenomenon:
"No matter where you are in North America, whether it's cloudy, clear or rainy, NASA wants as many people as possible to help with this citizen science project," said Kristen Weaver, deputy coordinator for the citizen science project, in a press release. "We want to inspire a million eclipse viewers to become eclipse scientists."