Eclipse Megamovie: Thousands of Cameras for Citizen Science

On August 21, 2017, the Moon will cast its shadow across the entire breadth of the United States for the first time in almost a century. It is estimated that 12 million people live within the path in which the sun will be blotted out, and many millions more are expected to pour into the area to experience the wonders of totality.

We’d really love it if you would tell us where you’ll be during the eclipse by creating your own event page, but that’s not what this article’s about. With millions gathered in a narrow swath from Oregon to South Carolina, and with the eclipse falling on a Monday so that the prior two weekend days will be filled with campouts at prime viewing locations, I expect that Eclipse 2017 will be one big coast-to-coast party. This is an event that will attract people of all stripes, from those with no interest in astronomy that have only the faintest idea of what’s actually happening celestially, to those so steeped in the science that they’ll be calling out the exact beginning of totality and when to expect Baily’s Beads to appear.

I suspect our readership leans closer to the latter than the former, and some may want to add to the eclipse experience by participating in a little citizen science. Here’s how you can get involved.

The Eclipse Megamovie

A total solar eclipse is perhaps nature’s most photogenic event. With the glare of the Sun’s face blotted out by the Moon and the sky suddenly gone black, the sun’s atmosphere is clearly visible, forming a ghostly and beautiful halo around our star. Eclipse 2017 will be the first eclipse to be visible from the US in the era of digital photography, and millions of smartphones and DSLRs will be producing petabytes of coronal images during the two minutes of totality that any one stationary observer will experience.

But what if there were a way to extend totality to the full ninety minutes it’ll take for the Moon’s shadow to march across the country? Turns out there is a way to do just that, and you can be a part of it. The Eclipse Megamovie is a joint project between Google, UC Berkeley, and a host of other educational institutions that seeks to glue together images of the Sun’s corona taken by volunteers across the country. If all goes well — and cell phone networks don’t crash under the load — Google’s custom algorithms will begin stitching together images using EXIF data to correct for time and location into a 90-minute long study of the corona. All that’s needed to participate is a decent DSLR, at least a 300-mm telephoto lens, and a sturdy tripod.

Lack the camera gear but still want to participate? There’s an app for that. The Eclipse Megamovie Mobile app not only helps you plan where and when to see the eclipse, it also automates the Android device’s camera during totality. The images taken will be uploaded to the Megamovie project and help assemble the most massive dataset of Eclipse images ever assembled.

The opportunities for citizen science won’t stop after the Megamovie is created, though. As powerful as Google’s systems have become, the Megamovie effort will still be relying on the pattern recognition abilities of the Mark 1 human eyeball and visual cortex to find interesting features in the corona. To support these ongoing studies, the database of Megamovie images will be publically available and searchable.

Both the science and the beauty of Eclipse 2017 will be captured as never before possible, and the event will live long past a few minutes of totality thanks to efforts like the Megamovie. If you’ve got the means you should really consider pitching in. After all, your image could be the one that leads to a breakthrough.

Feature images: Rick Fienberg/TQI/WTCC BY-NC-ND 4.0

9 thoughts on “Eclipse Megamovie: Thousands of Cameras for Citizen Science

  1. as you can see by my name, i don’t quite get it. why can scientist only study the sun’s atmospere when the moon is blocking the sunlight. i mean, you could achieve the same thing by blocking the light with any round object, right?

    1. Uh, no. You can’t create a round-enough object to compete with the 2,159-mile-diameter moon 250,000 miles away.

      And there are other things that can be studied only during eclipses. For example, the sun’s UV radiation excites the ionosphere, and it behaves differently that when it is not illuminated. During an eclipse, they can be studied side-by-side by bouncing HF radio waves off the ionosphere. I and thousands of other US amateur radio operators plan to do just that.

  2. My Wife and I will be camping out in Corvallis, Oregon. She is the astronomy and photography geek. Between us we will have several cameras and smartphones going. Will try to get the emails of the people around us to see what we all can get.

  3. Now that we have the solar observing satellites and their magnificent HD footage and even in stereoscopic versions it makes an eclipse a bit meh – unless it happens where you are, because then it’s quite a thing, I’m especially struck by the sudden drop in temperature as the sun gets obscured, it makes you experience the immense power of it, and our trust and dependence on it. But visually from video and photos, it’s a bit meh.

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