Students and scientists from around Arkansas will gather in Fulton, Missouri next Monday for the first cross-continental solar eclipse in almost 100 years. In addition to just enjoying the sight, they’re also planning to document and collect information for NASA.
Dr. James Kennon saw his first solar eclipse in 1991, and it was so spectacular, he knew it wouldn’t be his last.
"The one I saw in Hawaii, I watched it, and I’m standing there thinking, 'do that again! I want to see that again," he said. "The one I saw in Hawaii lasted a little over four minutes."
Kennon, a professor of Science Education at Arkansas State University, says he has had an interest in the sky for a long time. In 2006, he became the research director of a program called Arkansas BalloonSAT. The program has launched 49 balloons to heights of 100,000 feet, attached with devices that measure near-space atmospheric conditions.
Kennon was ready when an opportunity arose to study this year’s eclipse on Monday, August 21st.
"Back three years ago, we were invited to be a NASA site team for Missouri, to fly one of our balloons in the path of the eclipse," Kennon says, "the focus being to video the eclipse, both the moon and sun, as well as the shadow going across the earth."
Because Arkansas will not experience a full eclipse, Arkansas BalloonSAT will launch its 50th balloon from Fulton, Missouri. His team will capture for NASA the rare event of the moon crossing in front of the sun, the sky darkening as if it were nighttime, and the bright atmosphere of the sun shining around the moon. Kennon says they will be stationed at Fulton High School's sports complex in Fulton, Missouri.
"We have a ground station with antenna, dish antenna, yagi antenna, several antennae, and we will get live video from our balloon in flight," Kennon said. "We have to have internet there, and we're actually setting our field station up by their press box. Iridium satellites will send our live video to NASA."
18 members of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville S.P.A.C.E (Space and Planetary Association for Collaboration and Education) Hogs group are planning to help Dr. Kennon document the eclipse. Brett Bonine is the president-elect of the student group.
"We’ll just be sort of making baseline measurements for him to compare to," Bonine says, "taking pictures and video from the ground so to compare to his aerial observations."
Data collection is only a small part of why Bonine is going to Missouri. He has been looking forward to seeing this event since becoming fascinated with astronomy as a high schooler.
"I just want to witness the eclipse, just to see it. For about two minutes and 40 seconds it will be very dark around one o'clock in the afternoon, and that will be a strange sight to see. Also, you’ll be able to see parts of the sun you don’t normally see if you're in the path of totality" Bonine says.
He spends a lot of time thinking about how to get community members and young children as fascinated with space as he is. Bonine's club has done astronomy outreach to the Fayetteville community, such as visiting elementary schools around northwest Arkansas and demonstrating phases of the moon with oreos.
S.P.A.C.E Hogs will be setting up solar-filter telescopes for Fulton High students to get a good look at the eclipse. He says the event cannot be over-promoted as an opportunity to learn about our solar system.
"No one that's young now has had an opportunity to experience this from the United States. I don't know if it will be life changing for most people, but it definitely will be something cool to witness for a kid.
Dr. Kennon agrees that one can’t overstate the excitement surrounding the rare phenomenon.
"The last time a total solar eclipse went across Arkansas was 1918, so its been about 100 years. That's the only eclipse since 1918 that the totality path went across the whole United States," Kennon said.
Both Kennon and Bonine are thrilled to be able to view this eclipse, and recommend traveling to see it, even if it means students missing the first day of class.
"I know many professors in the physics department won't be there because they'll be up watching the eclipse, so they may just cancel classes or something," Bonine says.
For those who can’t make it this year, Kennon says Arkansas has several more spectacular eclipses down the line.
"There will be another total eclipse in 2024, April of ‘24, and it will come through Arkansas. I think Little Rock will be in the path, and if you can hang out till 2045, there'll be another one," Kennon said. "I thought about ‘45, and thought they could wheel me out of the nursing home to see it, and then I came back to reality and thought, well let me get through ‘17 first, and then I’ll shoot for ‘24."
The solar eclipse will begin August 21 at about 11:48 a.m. in central Arkansas and will last about three hours.
The Museum of Discovery and the Central Arkansas Library System will both be hosting events on the day of the eclipse. Arkansas residents can learn more about the eclipse here.