University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

Globally popular UND astronomy team to webcast next solar eclipse from Australia

Young and MarshOnce again, UND's popular team of scientists is taking its show on the global road to astronomical adventure.

Professors Timothy Young, Physics and Astrophysics, and Ronald Marsh, chair, Computer Science, will travel with their team to Cairns, Australia, to share a live webcast of a total solar eclipse. In addition to the video webcast, the UND team will acquire and post high-resolution digital photographs of the corona.

The eclipse begins at 2 p.m. U.S. Central Standard Time, Tuesday, Nov. 13. The webcast can be viewed at http://www.sems.und.edu or on Facebook. The live webcast is also available on mobile devices.

This eclipse will not be visible anywhere in North America. However, those not traveling to eclipse destinations will be able to view the eclipse live with the UND Sun Earth Moon System (SEMS) team's webcast beginning at 2 p.m., U.S. Central Standard Time, Nov. 13.

The UND eclipse team, called SEMS leaves Saturday from Grand Forks to the sold out hotels on the Great Barrier Reef to set up for the event. This will be the team's fourth live webcast of a total solar eclipse and 17th live webcast of other astronomical events, including annular and hybrid eclipses, lunar eclipses, and Venus and Mercury transits. All these can be watched on the SEMS web site.

"A total solar eclipse is one of the most spectacular events seen on Earth as witnessed only by those who are situated in the very narrow path of about 70 miles swathed by the moon's shadow as it traverses Earth's surface," said Young, an expert in cosmic events and an experienced solar system event tracker.

"The Nov. 13 eclipse begins in northern Australia at sunrise, its only populated landfall, and ends in the Pacific Ocean," Young said. "From Cairns, Australia, the eclipse will rise just above the beautiful Great Barrier Reef coast, an amazing photographic opportunity. We're capturing the images live with the telescopes through a solar filter because it's dangerous to observe these solar events directly."

"It will take 54 minutes for the Moon to completely cover the Sun before reaching totality," said Young. "That's the scientific term used to describe the period in which the Sun stays completely covered by the Moon."

Totality lasts between a brief 65 seconds--for example, July 20, 1963--and 7.5 minutes, the longest time of totality, set to occur on July 16, 2186.

Totality for the Nov. 13 eclipse is 2 minutes, 5 seconds, occurring between 3:38 and 3:40 p.m. The eclipse ends at 4:50 p.m.

"Even though that's short, the visual rewards are stunning," said Young, whose scientific research focuses on supernovas, or massive star explosions.

The Sun's corona is visible and planets and stars appear in the daytime. The corona, a halo of pearl-white light shimmering around the dark silhouette of the Moon, has been termed the "eye in the sky," can only be seen during totality unless advanced instruments are used.

The UND webcast is unique in several ways. The UND webcast broadcasts streaming color video, not just static pictures.

As in previous eclipse events that the team has webcast, the Nov. 13 webcast includes a chat room where viewers from around the world can add to their involvement in the eclipse experience and can ask questions of the UND team. The UND webcast uses live audio to answer viewer's questions and to provide viewers with updates and discussions on the progress of the eclipse. The UND webcast team will also produce and post podcasts about the total solar eclipse, the Australian culture, and interviews of local viewers.

It is the goal of the UND team to use technology to bring the excitement of science to viewers around the world.

Minutes vs. seconds

While the public is largely concerned with minutes, scientists such as Young measure these events down to fractions of seconds. The UND SEMS team records these events for classroom use at UND and with local schools in the Grand Forks area and beyond.

"The reason that eclipses are so rare is because the moon's orbit is tilted five degrees from the ecliptic (the Earth-sun plane)," Young said. "That leaves only two points where the sun, Earth and moon can line up exactly."

The moon is nearly the same angular size as the sun.

"From our perspective, the moon's disc looks about the same size as the sun, even though in reality the sun is 400 times bigger the moon and 400 times farther away," Young said. "So the moon in a total eclipse can block out the sun over a 200-mile wide path that sweeps across half the Earth."

The UND eclipse team's first eclipse Webcast was from Anatolia, Turkey, on March 26, 2006. The team's efforts are extremely interactive through use of its chat room, audio question/answer system, podcasts, and blogs.

"It's magical every time for me," said Young, who teaches his college classes how to track eclipses and record phases of the moon as part of his "learn-by-doing" approach to science education.

"Solar eclipses are important because they tell us so much about what is going on in our own solar system," Young said. "We aim to educate people—especially younger children—about how many eclipses there are per year and why."

-- Juan Miguel Pedraza, writer/editor, University Relations, 777.6571, juan.pedraza@UND.edu.


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