Solar Eclipse Was Bonanza for Scientific Research, Committee Told

WASHINGTON (CN) – The total solar eclipse in August wasn’t just a day-stopping sensation across the United States, it gave scientists the opportunity to collect the most detailed data ever on the sun, a congressional committee was told Thursday.

Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission, testified before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Thursday morning, telling it the data collected could advance solar panel technology and further research on how we on Earth can better protect ourselves from the adverse effects of to solar flares and sun storms.

During his presentation, Zurbuchen showed the committee a video he and other NASA researchers shot during the eclipse from an aircraft cruising at 45,000 feet.

In the film, Zurbuchen can be seen rejoicing at the sight of totality.

“Look, look, it’s incredible. Wow,” Zurbuchen said. “Did you see the magnetic streamers? The shine … Oh, there it comes, the solar ring around it … ”

“I’ve done research on this for 25 years and I’ve never seen it, you know?” he exclaimed.

Reflecting on the experience on Thursday, Zurbuchen said he was so excited as totality approached — even as a seasoned scientist — that he fouled up his observations in the moment.

“I mixed up the names,” he said laughing. “It’s called the ‘diamond ring,’ not the ‘solar ring,’ if you want to quote that.”

The path of totality during the Aug. 21 eclipse crossed 13 states, from Oregon to South Carolina, and residents of 19 other states were treated to a partial solar eclipse.

But as spectacular as the celestial show was, it was also brief. At its longest, totality lasted just two minutes and 41 seconds, and that was in just one location – Giant City State Park, south of Carbondale, Illinois.

Zurburchen said NASA’s plans to observe the eclipse were years in the making, engaging all 10 of the agencies centers in the “biggest outreach event in modern history.”

Nearly 7,000 libraries, 200 museums, 40 Challenger Centers – a chain of nonprofit space learning centers – 20 national parks and a smattering of zoos and baseball stadiums collaborated to watch the eclipse and share information.

NASA’s own website saw 90 million page views on eclipse day, exceeding their own online viewing records by seven times, Zurburchen said.

“Even Netflix lost 10 percent of the day’s viewership during the eclipse,” committee chairman Rep. Brian Babin of Texas remarked.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, noted that the eclipses have always inspired awe, but they’ve also served as a catalyst for scientific study and the development of useful technology on Earth.

“The 1878 eclipse in Wyoming inspired Edison when he attempted to measure the sun’s corona. It failed but it inspired him to think about light and transmission of power,” Smith said. “In a year, he invented the incandescent light bulb.”

The National Solar Observatory’s project, Citizen CATE, which stands for Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse, set up 60 telescopes along the totality’s 2,500-mile path. The program was operated by high school and university students and other amateur scientists.

That sort of engagement with young students and burgeoning scientists is critical, said Dr. Heidi Hammel, the executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

The National Science Foundation’s network of solar telescopes around the world have always helped make predictions for the NOAA and the Air Force, but the eclipse gave scientists a chance to exercise their models, said Dr. James Ulvestad, assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation.

“Now we can see if what we predicted was close to the truth,” he said.

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