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Idaho high school students taking part in a project of cosmic proportions

Posted at 7:34 AM, Jul 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-26 11:01:24-04

The small town of Weiser, Idaho is getting ready to take part in a really big experiment on the day of the upcoming total solar eclipse. But it's not expert astronomers doing the work on August 21st. Instead, a group of high school students are helping pull off the epic experiment.

One of those students is Weiser High School senior Llanee Gibson, who has - in a way - always had her head in the clouds. “When I was younger I thought i wanted to be an astronomer so i always tracked constellations," Gibson remembers.

Gibson is a Science Olympiad competitor and junior vice president of the science club, so when she found out her tiny school had been recruited to be a part of a massive, nationwide science project, she says jumped at the chance. “I've known about the eclipse for awhile but when she told me we had a chance to be a part of it, I wanted to be the first one on the list."

The citizen CATE (Continental America Telescopic Eclipse) experiment is being organized by the National Solar Observatory. The group approached Weiser High about being one of dozens of sites across the country to help gather images and data during the eclipse. Weiser sits directly in the path of totality, and science teacher Martin Hiner says it was an offer he couldn't refuse. “We were in a prime location, and they wanted us very badly, so we were recruited to be part of this, and we're happy to do it,” Hiner recalls.

The CATE experiment revolves around a series of powerful telescopes like the one given to Weiser High, which will be aimed directly at the sun during the eclipse, snapping pictures of the rare event. Gibson explains, “Along the line of totality we have groups working with telescopes to take the same pictures we are, to see what it's going to look like along the US.”

In fact there are nearly 70 of the telescopes being used for this project, spanning the entire path of totality from Oregon to South Carolina. Hiner told us most of the telescopes are in a populated area, but “...some are going to be set out in the wilderness where someone's going to have to backpack in and carry their equipment."

In all of those places, groups just like the one at Weiser High are hard at work learning how to use the powerful telescope, its camera, and its data-collecting software. There’s a lot that goes into, including checking the drift and the alignment, then, says Gibson, “...we focus in on the sun, and then once we focus we can start taking images of the sun through different exposures."

On the day of the eclipse, Gibson and four fellow students will be responsible for lining up the telescope, removing its sun filter at the exact moment of totality, and then capturing hundreds of images during the very short time the moon completely covers the sun. “We only have 2 minutes and 5 seconds to get this exact, so if we mess up, then we messed up the whole eclipse,” Gibson says.

The images captured in Weiser will then be combined with those from the other 67 telescopes across the country to create a continuous, 90-minute movie of the solar corona - or the "crown" around the sun. It's a first-of-its-kind undertaking, and a daunting one, since each location only gets one shot at getting it right.

Besides its direct spot in the eclipse's path of totality, Weiser was also chosen for this project because of its weather. Of all the locations in the path, Weiser has one of the best probabilities of a cloudless sky on that date in August.

After the eclipse, by the way, the school gets to keep the telescope for future star, sun, and moon gazers.

If you’d like to keep up with the CATE experiment, head here to learn more about it.