Five Fascinating Science Projects Using the Total Solar Eclipse to Illuminate New Discoveries

The NASA-supported experiments are mobilizing legions of researchers and volunteers to capture wide-ranging observations during totality, from amateur radio operations to elusive solar plumes to unusual animal behavior

Total Solar Eclipse 2017
The 2017 total solar eclipse as seen from Madras, Oregon NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

As the moon blankets the sun and casts a dark shadow over the Earth, scientific breakthroughs can come to light. Total solar eclipses are more than just breathtaking spectacles—they are cosmic rarities that give researchers unique opportunities to study natural phenomena otherwise imperceivable.

More than 100 years ago, astronomers used a total solar eclipse to prove Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, revolutionizing our understanding of the universe. Now, as North America prepares for its first total solar eclipse in seven years, scientists have the potential to make additional, pivotal discoveries.

On April 8, shadow will stretch across swaths of the continent, passing over 30 million people. As it does, these research projects will leverage the highly anticipated event to expand human understanding of the universe and promote local scientific engagement.

Here are five NASA-funded projects seeking to make new breakthroughs during the solar eclipse.

The Eclipse Megamovie

Chasing Totality: Making the 2017 Eclipse Megamovie

The sun’s corona, its glowing outermost atmosphere that whips tendrils of white-hot plasma into space, is usually hidden. The star’s bright surface tends to obscure it from observation. But during a total solar eclipse, these conditions are flipped, as the blazing corona becomes visible against a shadowed sun.

This year, the Eclipse Megamovie 2024 has recruited more than 100 citizen scientist photographers to line the path of totality and set up cameras pointing toward the corona. The resulting collection of images will be crucial for examining this mysterious region and the turbulent solar weather that it produces.

“The solar eclipse is the only time we can really take these certain kinds of photographs,” says Hannah Hellman, a communications specialist for the project. “The idea is to be able to study the motion of the solar corona, the way it looks and the way it behaves.”

When the Eclipse Megamovie began during the total solar eclipse in 2017, it was a “first-of-its-kind project,” compiling tens of thousands of photos of the corona into a continuous video to study the sun’s atmosphere as a whole, according to Hellman. The 2024 project narrows its focus. By garnering even more images in even higher definition, the team seeks to reveal the “secret lives” of solar jets and plumes, which are formed on the sun and seem to disappear or alter form before they ultimately leave the star with the solar wind.

“The region between the inner and outer corona is a transition region. It’s where a lot of solar plasma waves, coronal mass ejections of [solar jets], all these electromagnetic processes happen,” says Laura Peticolas, principal investigator for the Eclipse Megamovie and a physics and astronomy expert at Sonoma State University. “From a big picture physics perspective, the question is: What physics drives these jets, what is allowing them to continue to propagate out into the solar wind? And what physics keeps the solar jets from doing that?”

Using DSLR cameras, each citizen scientist photographer will take around 90 images at different exposures. After photos and location data are submitted, the Eclipse Megamovie team will host a competition for volunteer software engineers, who will use machine learning to stitch the photos together into a fluid video. The intended result: a jaw-dropping movie of the corona in motion.

HamSci and Solar Eclipse QSO Parties

QSO Practice
Case Amateur Radio Club members Tobias Heller and Eddie Rodriguez, along with advisor David Kazdan, practice for the Eclipse QSO Party using club equipment. Not pictured are club members Aaron Bilow, Kristina Collins, Adam Goodman, Laura Schwartz and Maris Usis. Case Western Reserve University Amateur Radio Club

Amateur radio stations across the continent will be tuning into the upcoming total solar eclipse. In several “Solar Eclipse QSO Parties,” they hope to paint a clearer picture of the ionosphere, the atmospheric region that distributes the radio waves they use to communicate.

The ionosphere is constantly changing, warping in response to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, making it notoriously difficult to measure—it’s too high for airplanes to fly and too low for satellites to roam. That’s where amateur radio operators come in.

With the Solar Eclipse QSO Party, amateur, or ham, operators will send and receive signals to one another, tracking their signal strength and reach before, during and after the eclipse. The effort is a research project and a contest: Participants must contact as many people in two-way transmissions (QSOs) as possible and reach others as far away as possible. More people equals more points, and those points are multiplied by distance. Any ham station with an HF radio and antenna can participate.

W8EDU, Case Western Reserve University’s amateur radio club, is a collaborating institution in the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation, or HamSci, and its members have been gearing up for their QSO party, on top of their individual eclipse research.

“We’re gamifying the collection of data in order to learn more about these ionospheric conditions,” says Aaron Bilow, an electrical engineering undergraduate at Case Western and leader of W8EDU’s Solar Eclipse QSO Party team. The data will inform how the ionosphere behaves when the sun is blocked, in comparison to before and after the eclipse.

“With information that people are receiving with these transmitters, looking at whether or not they can hear the other station or how those signals change, we’re able to remotely measure how the eclipse is changing the upper atmosphere,” says Nathaniel Frissell, an electrical engineer and founder of HamSci.

Scientists know the ionosphere evolves in a 24-hour process, from day to night, says Frissell. But the eclipse is like quickly “flicking a light switch,” according to Laura Schwartz, a W8EDU club member and electrical engineering student. The citizen scientists will reveal how a short, sudden darkness affects the way radio waves propagate in the ionosphere—and how this may alter its overall ionization.

“Everyone participating has a sense of community,” says Adam Goodman, a W8EDU club member and electrical engineering student. “The human aspect is very important, along with science. You have people crazy enough to go out and pitch wires in their backyard and then listen across the country for signals out of the static.”


Travis Peden, SunSketcher lead Android developer, sets up his phone to picture the 2023 Annual Eclipse in Odessa, Texas, for SunSketcher's beta test. SunSketcher

The surface of the sun is nearly a precise sphere—with some exceptions. These deviations are small but significant, and understanding them could unlock insights into the solar interior.

In April, SunSketcher hopes to mobilize millions of volunteers to track the surface shape of the sun. The process is a straightforward one. Citizen scientists along the path of totality will download the SunSketcher app, prop up their phone with a tripod or an available object (such as a rock) and point it at the sun. The app is preprogrammed to take photos at particular times during the eclipse.

“In a smartphone, you have GPS, a location and time very precisely. Every person has this really high-precision data,” says Hugh Hudson, a research physicist at the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and project lead for SunSketcher. “Our theoretical solution is that if you get a million people with a million pieces of bad data, you’ve got good data.”

a totally eclipsed sun with an even glow around the edges of the moon, except for the bottom left where a brighter glow has escaped through
Baily's Beads occur when gaps in the moon's terrain let sunlight pass through, creating pearls of light around the edges of the eclipse. NASA / Aubrey Gemignani

The carefully timed images are meant to capture a phenomenon called Baily’s Beads. Right before and just after totality, when only a slim crescent of the sun is visible, these small pearls of light shine through gaps in the moon’s rocky terrain.

Scientists can use the smartphone photos to time and track Baily’s Beads (and according to the project, you don’t need a solar filter for the app to work). Researchers will use this data alongside their existing understanding of the moon’s topography and positioning, which they know from satellite measurements.

“That last flash of light depends on the structure of the moon. If there’s a lunar valley, you see a flash of light. If there’s a lunar mountain, you don’t see it,” says Hudson. “Because we know where the moon’s mountains and valleys are, we can project that back on the sun and see the shape of the sun. Hence, SunSketcher.”

The resulting data will help measure the sun’s oblateness, or how much it has been flattened into a more elliptical shape by its rotation and internal dynamics, from solar tides to flows of gas. Understanding the sun’s shape can allow for more precise research into gravitational theories and how the sun’s gravity affects the planets’ motion.

While measurements of the sun with telescopes have been able to discern its oblateness to a notable degree, SunSketcher aims to be even more precise.

“We’re hoping to do a factor of ten better, maybe a factor of 100 better. That’s where you start to make discoveries in science,” says Hudson. “If you beat the previous measurements in the field by a factor, then you are going to learn something.”

Citizen CATE: Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse Experiment

Citizen Cate 2024

As the eclipse sweeps over the continent, 35 teams of citizen scientists, all equipped with identical telescopes, will dot a path from Eagle Pass, Texas, to Houlton, Maine. Their goal: to capture video clips along the 2,000-mile-long stretch of totality to display the magnetic structure of the sun’s middle corona.

Using special cameras that are sensitive to the polarization of light, each team will capture two to three minutes of video to create a total 60 minutes of continuous footage, centered on the sun’s lower to middle corona. This will allow scientists to examine the motion, magnetic structure and density of the region—revealing how magnetic energy within the corona is transferred into heat and ultimately helping determine the strength of solar winds.

“The light from the corona is polarized. And, it turns out that the direction of polarization and amount of polarization provide extra information about what’s happening in the corona in ways you can’t easily get without measuring polarization,” says Amir Caspi, leader of the CATE 2024 project and a solar physicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “[With] this camera, every pixel has a polarization filter on it. So, we can measure the polarization in the corona with every pixel, everywhere in the corona, all the time.”

The project builds on research done in the 2017 Citizen CATE project, which explored the source and speed of plasma plumes and “pioneered this kind of experiment,” according to Caspi. He adds that “CATE 2024 evolves this into the next generation, where not only are we using the next generation of scientists, we’re also using the next generation of equipment,” innovations that were not available in 2017. Once the data is submitted, the science team will analyze it, inviting their volunteers to help process the data.

Volunteers range in age and expertise, from high schoolers to seasoned professionals. “We want to advance the state of science and the reach of science into communities that are not professional scientists, communities that are historically underrepresented in the sciences and in astronomy,” says Caspi.

After the projects conclusion, participating communities will get to keep the research equipment as a resource, encouraging local engagement in professional-grade scientific experiments in the future.

“We can’t just be done after the day of the eclipse,” says Sarah Kovac, co-investigator of CATE 2024, who was motivated to pursue a PhD in astronomy after participating in the project in 2017. “We’re going to utilize these resources and stay engaged with these teams.”

The Eclipse Soundscapes Project

Eclipse Soundscapes Project
Some Eclipse Soundscapes participants will take notes on what they hear, see or feel during the April 8 total solar eclipse. These observers took notes in Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico during the October 14, 2023, annular solar eclipse. Eclipse Soundscapes

Though humans have devised methods to predict a total solar eclipse, animals and insects in nature are faced with a sudden onset of darkness. As skies dim, horses take cover, flying bald eagles change their speeds and honey bees slow their foraging.

Changes in animal and insect behavior during this cosmic event are not only seen—they’re also felt and heard. The Eclipse Soundscapes Project seeks to observe how the eclipse may disrupt diverse ecosystems by using all senses.

“Eclipses are often thought of as a visual event—something that you see,” says Kelsey Perrett, communications coordinator with the Eclipse Soundscapes Project, in a statement. “We want to show that eclipses can be studied in a multi-sensory manner, through sound and feeling and other forms of observation.”

Reports of animals behaving strangely during eclipses have persisted for hundreds of years. The Eclipse Soundscape Project is inspired by research conducted about a century ago, when a total solar eclipse journeyed over parts of the northeastern U.S. and Canada in 1932. Scientists collected observations from nearly 500 volunteers at the time. By incorporating modern technology, the Eclipse Soundscape Project hopes to repeat this crowdsourced experiment, measuring how animals—especially crickets—react to the eclipse.

The team invites as many people as possible to join the project, regardless of age, experience level or whether they are in the path of totality. One can participate as an “apprentice” by learning more about the event, as a “data analyst” by processing the data collected or as a “facilitator” by uniting and training community members. Those located along the path of totality can serve as “data collectors,” recording the sounds of the eclipse, or “observers,” logging their multi-sensory observations of surrounding nature as the sky darkens.

“When it comes down to it, answering our science questions about how eclipses impact life on Earth depends entirely on the data that people volunteer to contribute,” says Perrett in the statement. “The more audio data and observations we have, the better we can answer these questions.”

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