Assistant Professor of Engineering Kiersten Kerby-Patel has big plans for Monday’s solar eclipse. She is leading a group of citizen scientists from across the country who will be using the sky as a laboratory.
Kerby-Patel and her collaborators, professors Jill Nelson and Laura Lukes of George Mason University, are organizing a crowdsourced experiment called EclipseMob, which will use inputs from observers across the country to monitor changes in the ionosphere—a layer of the earth’s atmosphere that is able to refract radio waves. The data will help scientists understand how radio waves behave during ionospheric disturbances.
“The eclipse is a rare opportunity—it's a short-term disturbance to the ionosphere that is scheduled ahead of time,” Kerby-Patel said. “Usually it's very difficult to perform measurements of ionospheric disturbances because we don't know when and where they will occur.”
The EclipseMob team has shipped 150 student-designed monitoring kits to citizen scientists in 31 states and two countries. Volunteers will use these antennas and receiver circuits to measure the ionospheric activity, and a GPS-enabled EclipseMob app on their smartphones will record data and get accurate time and location information.
The crowdsourcing of solar eclipse measurements has been attempted before in the United States, most recently in 1925. But Kerby-Patel said participants often failed to record vital time and date information.
“This is the first solar eclipse that has happened in the continental United States since GPS was developed,” Kerby-Patel said. “With [EclipseMob], we are able to standardize a lot of things and we are able to get accurate time and location information so we can learn a lot about the geographic variation of how radio waves propagate during the eclipse.”
Undergraduate students from UMass Boston’s engineering and computer science departments helped design the radio receivers that these citizen scientists will use.
Kerby-Patel said the research team has several goals for the EclipseMob experiment.
“In addition to learning the scientific goals about how the ionosphere behave, we have also had outreach goals and educational goals. We’ve already began to learn lessons from that and we’re applying those to our plan for 2024 when there’s another eclipse,” Kerby-Patel said.
After months of preparations by Kerby-Patel and the EclipseMob observers, the day of the event will be relatively quiet.
“By then everything will be easy. The hard part is right now where we are trying to make sure everything is ready. On the eclipse day I will be relaxing,” she said.