During eclipse, Nebraska will be a hot spot for scientists studying the sun

August 13, 2017 GMT

Scientists hope to crack some of the mysteries of our closest star when they fan out across Nebraska on eclipse day.

Total solar eclipses like the one Aug. 21 can be predicted “down to the millisecond,” said Mariana Lazarova, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

“Yet the sun itself is still a big enigma.”

Scientists and amateurs will stake out the totality zone, using telescopes, high-altitude balloons, computers and other instruments to capture data and images.

Lazarova is coordinating Nebraska’s part in a national experiment that will focus on the sun’s super-heated atmosphere. The corona, as it’s called, is visible during the brief period when the moon completely blocks the sun’s surface.

The rest of the time it’s too faint to see. Although scientists can simulate eclipses to see it, they get a better view during a real one.

The physics of the corona is still somewhat of a puzzle, she said.

The project, called Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment, will involve 68 observers spread out across the country.

Using identical telescopes and cameras, they will try to capture images of the corona along the 2,500-mile path of totality from Oregon to South Carolina.

The observers will be citizen-scientists, high school groups and universities, stationed about 50 to 70 miles apart.

In Nebraska, nine observers will take part, located in Mitchell, Alliance, Hyannis, Tryon, Callaway, Ravenna, Sutton, Beatrice and Pawnee City.

They’ve been practicing for two and a half months, observing the sun and moon, getting ready for the big day.

Jeremy Weremeichik, assistant professor of physical and life sciences at Chadron State College, will be stationed in Hyannis.

By capturing images along the line of totality from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, observers can obtain data from the full 90 minutes of totality instead of just the two minutes or so of darkness at any one location.

“Never has it been studied over this length of time before,” he said.

Images will be stitched into a movie, providing what Lazarova called “dynamic information.” A quick version of the movie will be posted online, but scientists will dig into the data for months or years afterward, she said.

Meantime, a team of out-of-state scientists will make Alliance their base camp.

Martina Arndt, a physics professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, and her team hope to better understand the mechanisms behind the corona and the solar wind.

The solar wind is the constant stream of particles moving away from the sun.

They will lug along various cameras, spectrometers and computers, setting up in a tent.

“We call ourselves the ‘solar wind Sherpas’ because we travel to such remote places you can’t just have UPS deliver it,” Arndt said. “We carry all the stuff, very often at the sacrifice of a change of clothes.”

Setting up the equipment and putting it through its checks takes four days, she said. On the big day, scientists follow a script that tells them when to open the tent, when to take lens caps off, when to start the computers and hit “go.”

They will capture data for about 2½ minutes.

“It’s a lot like a Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “So much work goes into it in the beginning, and it’s over in a flash.”

The team is six people, plus her daughter and some colleagues who have never seen an eclipse. Everyone will pitch in to help.

Because of the setup time involved, her team is not mobile. It can’t pick up and move in case of poor weather.

“Trust me,” Arndt said, “I don’t like to drink, but I’ll probably have a beer if it’s raining or gross or something.”

Ballooning teams worry more about wind.

Michael and Kendra Sibbernsen of Papillion will be launching a high-altitude balloon from the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island.

Theirs will be one of about 100 balloons launched by 55 teams in NASA’s Eclipse Ballooning Project.

If all goes right, their cameras will soar above the clouds, aimed down to capture the moon’s shadow crossing the country.

Each balloon will carry a transmitter to send the images back to the team for uploading to the Internet. The hope is to stream the eclipse live.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” said Michael Sibbernsen, a lecturer of astronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I have absolutely no doubt it will not be 100 percent successful for every single team. And it might not be 100 percent successful for us.”

Kendra Sibbernsen teaches astronomy and physics at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

The Sibbernsens are experienced as co-leads of the NASA Nebraska Space Grant high-altitude ballooning program. They have launched more than 60 balloons for middle schools, high schools and colleges.

This one will be tricky.

Balloons rise to altitudes of between 85,000 and 110,000 feet — so high, it looks like you’re in space.

On the bright side, the weather’s beautiful up there.

The tricky part is locking onto the transmissions from the balloon, especially if the wind blows it down range, they said.

“It is a little bit of a nail-biter,” Kendra Sibbernsen said. “I guess the one saving grace is that there are 55 other teams, surely somebody’s going to be successful here.”

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077