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Western Kentucky University team to launch free public app for photographing 2024 total eclipse

An example of Baily’s Beads eclipse captured on July 2, 2019 as seen at La Silla
P. Horalék/ESO
An example of Baily’s Beads eclipse captured on July 2, 2019 as seen at La Silla

A team of students and professors at Western Kentucky University is working on a new app designed for recording images of the next total solar eclipse in April 2024.

The "SunSketcher Eclipse Project" builds on Eclipse Megamovie 2017 and complements Eclipse Megamovie 2024, which focuses on crowd-sourced coronal imagery.

Starr May, a computer science major at WKU who works in the Extended Reality (XR) Lab, said the app will be used to compile information on the sun during the total solar eclipse next year.

She said the data collected will have several applications, most notably helping humanity better determine the shape of the sun, which isn't a perfect sphere due to rotationally induced oblateness.

"What we are going to do is try and get a bunch of pictures of the sun during a solar eclipse, because the moon is right there in front of the sun, and we can use the moon, which we know the shape of very well, as a reference to figure out how big or ‘wobbly’ the sun is."

The app will be available for free to record eclipse images of Baily’s Beads (the light on the edge of the moon) at 2nd and 3rd contacts.

May said that a similar process for collecting data was attempted during the Eclipse Megamovie Project in 2017, which used high-quality photo lenses to capture images. However, because of the need for specialized equipment to capture the sun, only about 40 people participated.

"Our methods for gathering photos and the idea itself are not new. We have attempted this before. We’re trying to refine the process and make a little more progress," she said. "Our goal is to get a bunch of people, millions of people hopefully, in the path of the eclipse, to use our app and get a few pictures of the sun as the eclipse happens and as the eclipse ends."

Rather than focusing on the quality of the photos in 2024, the team will be more concerned with the overall quantity of images collected.

Travis Peden, a WKU student who has been with the XR Lab for about two years, said the app will be tested during the annular eclipse on Oct. 14, 2023, in Texas.

"The difference between an annular and a total eclipse is that in a total eclipse, you have the moon completely covering up the front of the sun, whereas in an annular eclipse, the moon is farther away from the Earth," he said, noting the moon appears smaller than the sun. "While we won’t be able to get usable data to analyze for this eclipse, we can test it with a bunch of random users."

The full team includes Gordon Emslie, Greg Arbuckle, Michael Galloway, Travis Peden, Starr May, and Janessa Unseld from WKU, as well as Hugh Hudson from UC Berkeley and the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

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