For a few dramatic minutes next month, the Sun will be blotted from the sky by the Moon passing in front of it. Some people have been planning for this rare North American solar eclipse for years, but if you're not sure of when, where or how to view it, there's an app for that.
The Smithsonian Solar Eclipse app, the first smartphone app ever released by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was developed over the past few months to help bring the excitement of the August 21 eclipse to more people.
"Because it is so well positioned for an American audience, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to engage the public in some of the science that's going to happen," said Tyler Jump, marketing manager for the center.
The app will walk its users through the different types of solar eclipses and how they happen, including the difference between the annular eclipses that only partially block the Sun to the total eclipses that fully cover it, like the upcoming one will.
For an even closer look, the app also curates images from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, a satellite with multiple sensors trained on our star. Before, during and after the eclipse, users of the app will be able to see views of the sun from space to complement their views from the ground, Jump said, and to see the dynamic surface of the Sun change. And the app has a section explaining the various satellites used by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to observe the Sun today and in the past and future.
Devoted eclipse chasers have been planning their trips to the narrow band of the continental United States where the Moon will totally block light from the sun for years, with some even taking special chartered flights that will follow the eclipse cross-country. But for the millions of Americans who are unable or unwilling to travel to see the total eclipse in person, the Smithsonian Solar Eclipse app will show a livestream from NASA of the views of the eclipse across America.
Even those not living in or traveling to the 70-mile-wide strip of totality will still see at least a partial solar eclipse next month, and the Smithsonian Solar Eclipse app will help people calculate how much of the sun will be blocked from their location and even show a simulation of what their view will look like.
And since viewing a solar eclipse without the proper equipment can be dangerous, the app also provides a guide to viewing one safely. For example, viewers can use pinhole cameras cut out of paper or made with their hands to project the image of the eclipse onto the ground to look at without eye protection.
If the app is well received, Jump says it's likely that this won't be the last educational space app from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
"We really hope that people engage and get excited about it," Jump said.