What can astronomers study during a total solar eclipse?

Astronomers Shadia Habbal and Matt Penn discuss what they can learn from observations of the corona and solar poles during the 2017 solar eclipse.

Vocabulary: solar eclipse, corona, atmosphere, magnetic fields, solar wind

Next Generation Science Standards: ESS1.A: The Universe and Its Stars, ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System and CC2: Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation. Can be used to build towards HS-ESS1–3 and MS-ESS1–1.


Total eclipse image taken Mar. 20, 2015 at Svalbard, Norway. Credit: S. Habbal, M. Druckmüller and P. Aniol

On August 21, thousands of people will line up across the country from Corvallis, Oregon, to Goose Creek, South Carolina, to catch a glimpse of a total solar eclipse. As the moon passes between Earth and the sun and the summer sky briefly goes dark, what will scientists be observing about our nearest star?

Astronomer Shadia Habbal has observed solar eclipses from locales across the globe, including Indonesia, the Faroe Islands, and India. The upcoming eclipse provides an opportunity for her to study the temperature of the sun’s atmosphere by using a camera to watch how ions move within the corona.

And astronomer Matt Penn manages the project Citizen CATE (Continental America Telescopic Eclipse), which will coordinate citizen scientists in 60 different locations across the country to snap a panoramic photo of the solar eclipse as it occurs. He’ll use this data to create better models about the velocities of solar winds.

Habbal and Penn discuss the research that will be happening during the eclipse and describe what it’s like to experience sudden darkness in the mid-afternoon.

Audio Excerpt “The Solar Science That Happens During A Total Eclipse,” May 5, 2017. (Original Segment)

Print this segment transcript.


  • Why can’t we see the sun’s corona every day? Brainstorm an analogy or demonstration that would help you explain why the corona is not usually visible here on Earth. Note: It cannot involve the sun or an eclipse.
  • Shadia Habbal has been to the path of totality of fourteen eclipses, but none of those have occurred in the same place. Develop one possible explanation to explain why the location of the path of totality for a solar eclipse changes location. Evaluate and refine your explanation using information from NASA.
  • Create a diagram based on Shadia Habbal’s description that shows the change in temperature from the core of the sun out to the atmosphere that surrounds it.
  • Citizen CATE is a citizen science project. Based on the interview, create a definition for citizen science. What do you think the benefits are of doing a project like Citizen CATE?
  • Aside from looking at the sun for data, how might the phenomena that Shadia Habbal and Matt Penn study be connected?

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