Scientists collect valuable data during the Great American Eclipse

It came, it swept across the country (plunging parts of it in near-total darkness) and just like that, it was gone – but for most, the Great American Solar Eclipse somehow managed to live up to the hype, offering the chance to experience a rare astronomical phenomenon decades in the making.

Highly anticipated for several months, the first total solar eclipse to take place in the continental US since 1979, and the first to travel from coast to coast in nearly a century, brought folks out en masse to witness the 1.5-hour-long astronomical phenomenon, the New York Times reported.

On Monday afternoon, along a 70-mile-wide stretch of the continental US, people were treated to the moon almost completely blocking out the sun, leaving only the corona (the halo of heated gas that surrounds the sun) visible in at least a portion of 14 different states, the newspaper added.

Residents of and visitors to Lincoln Beach, Oregon, were the first to be able to see the eclipse at its peak, as it first became visible there at 10:16 am PST, according to Time. From there, it made its way to Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina before coming to a close in the Columbia, South Carolina area at 2:44 pm EST.

Unfortunately, clouds tampered with viewing quality in some places – including in Carbondale, Illinois, where totality lasted for a total of 2 minutes, 38 seconds, according to the Times. While thousands gathered into Southern Illinois University’s football stadium to catch the eclipse, the clouds came and went, offering folks only a brief, momentary glimpse at the phenomenon.

Scientists hard at work collecting data during the event

While people all over the country donned their eclipse glasses, sat back and enjoyed the show, scientists were hard at work gathering data from the rare event, according to reports. In fact, as USA Today reported, some researchers will spend years reviewing their findings and preparing new studies based on observations made during Monday’s historic event.

Since the corona was visible during the total solar eclipse, NASA scientists took the opportunity to study the size, shape and structure of this thin outer atmospheric layer, the newspaper noted. Specifically, they were hoping to learn more about the corona’s magnetic field, which may help scientists better predict when a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME) could occur.

One group of researchers, led by Philip Judge from the High Altitude Observatory in Colorado, took the opportunity to study the corona’s magnetic field structure by capturing images with new equipment that will allow them to obtain novel polarization measurements, NASA explained in a press release. When combined with ultraviolet data gathered by other observatories and satellites, this data “will confirm or refute our understanding of how light across the entire spectrum forms in the corona, perhaps helping to resolve some nagging disagreements,” he said.

In addition, the agency studied the eclipse using a spectrometer to survey infrared light from the solar corona for the first time, which will improve their ability to forecast space weather, as well as a special polarization camera designed to capture data on the temperature and speed of matter located in the corona. Finally, they studied the lower corona, hoping to learn more about how the solar atmosphere reaches temperature far exceeding those on the surface of the sun.


Image credit: NASA