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Friday, Dec 8, 2023

Eclipse Amazes Viewers at the College

Jonathan Kemp, telescope and scientific computing specialist at the Middlebury College Mittelman Observatory, was thrilled and surprised by the immense national popularity of the August eclipse.

“I expected a lot of interest, but I think it was even more than I expected,” Kemp said. “The amount of interest and enthusiasm across the general public was quite impressive. From my perspective, it seems like for an entire day the national dialogue was changed, just a little bit, for the better to think about science, astronomy, STEM, the sun, the moon, the solar system, and our place in the universe.”

Kemp and a handful of students and faculty gathered on the McCardell Bicentennial Hall rooftop on August 21 to watch the phenomenon, which reached its maximum at 2:41 p.m. when the moon covered 60 percent of the sun. The eclipse was North America’s first transcontinental eclipse since 1918, and garnered significant media coverage and enthusiasm from around the country.

Kemp was careful to keep the eclipse-viewing event small, so that he could offer one-to-one guidance with each observer. He and science data librarian Wendy Shook, who helped Kemp prior to and during the event, answered questions and ensured that each viewer handled all equipment and eye protection correctly. Spectators utilized eclipse glasses, an indirect solar projection method, and a small telescope outfitted with a solar filter to securely view the sun. Some viewers brought their homemade pinhole cameras to the event as well.

Luckily, the group enjoyed a relatively unobstructed view of the eclipse, unbothered by the cloud coverage that plagued spectators’ views elsewhere. They even saw sunspots on the sun’s surface through the telescopes, which appeared dark in contrast with the brightness of the sun.

Shook, who has a background in physics and astronomy, was amazed by the eclipse and its power to bring people together.

“It sounds trite, but reading about eclipses and experiencing them are very different, and there is a thrill when the science you learned as a child becomes real,” she said. “It becomes a shared experience that brings people together in a good way, and I think the world sorely needs experiences like these.”

Despite the limited size of the event, Kemp managed to engage with members of the community through the observatory email list and the observatory website, which he updated with detailed safety protocols and other links about optimizing the eclipse-viewing experience.

Kemp also took photographs of the eclipse for the College communications department using a solar telescope mounted onto the 24-inch telescope in the observatory’s dome. The solar telescope was mounted with a Hydrogen-Alpha filter, which, like all solar filters, let little enough light into the field of view so that spectators could carefully view the sun.

Kemp’s photos were picked up by the College’s social media feeds and various local news outlets. Interestingly, the photographs show the presence of a solar prominence, caused by a flare of gas on the sun’s surface. Like the sunspots viewed through the rooftop telescopes, these prominences offered an exciting new look at the sun for the average viewer.

Kemp was excited to share his love for astronomy with the Middlebury community through the viewing event and his other outreach efforts, and believes that celestial phenomena such as solar eclipses can open people’s eyes to the wonders of astronomy. Many organizations used the eclipse as an opportunity to educate, taking advantage of its enrapturing effect to pique people’s interest in science.

“I think a lot of the outreach that was done by scientific organizations was centered around not just the eclipse itself but in engaging the public and schoolchildren in things like STEM activities, things that perhaps have a pedagogical aspect, to allow appreciation of the eclipse specifically and the universe more generally in a way that could stoke people’s interest and enthusiasm in astronomy and in science more generally,” Kemp said.

Though Vermonters witnessed a partial eclipse, viewers from several towns and cities throughout the nation saw the moon completely cover the sun. This obstruction was accompanied by a host of eerie effects, including darkening of the sky, cooling of the atmosphere, and changes in animal behavior.

Spectators often describe witnessing totality as a transformative experience.

“The astronomer at Columbia who was my mentor for many years and also my advisor in college would proudly say that he became an astronomer on the day in March, 1970, when a total solar eclipse went across the Eastern seaboard,” Kemp said. “It was such a seminal event in his budding career as a scientist that it perhaps solidified his path in astronomy on the day that he experienced that total solar eclipse.”

In addition to looking marvelous, total eclipses give scientists unique opportunities to study and learn things about the sun that they may otherwise not be able to witness. Scientists use total eclipses to study the sun’s outer atmosphere, or solar corona, for example, which can only be seen when the brightness of the sun is completely blocked from vision by the moon.

While total solar eclipses in themselves are not rare — they take place, on average, every year and a half — they may only occur once every 400 years or so in a given location. Middlebury will be fortunate enough to witness a total solar eclipse in 2024, when a path of totality approximately 175 miles wide will make its way across the eastern half of the U.S. It will experience another — though partial — eclipse in 2045, when North America is again treated to a trans-continental eclipse.

Until then, Kemp invites students to the observatory to enjoy the countless other celestial sights our solar system has to offer. Because the night sky changes continually throughout the year, spectators are always in for something new, whether they are observing the stars, the moon in its many phases, or even the International Space Station as it flies overhead. Kemp and his student assistants at the observatory are eager to help science majors and non-science majors alike use the large telescope at the top of the observatory, the smaller telescopes on the rooftops, and the naked eye to view the incredible sights above. They also want to provide students and members of the community with the resources they need to see the stars anytime, anywhere.

“We’re pretty fortunate that here in Middlebury, despite the sometimes cloudy weather, we have fantastically dark skies,” Kemp said. “We’re hoping that people realize that they can go home or go back to their dorm and still enjoy the night sky. They don’t have to be at the observatory.”

The College additionally offers courses for students who want to extend their education about space to the classroom. Although Middlebury does not have an official astronomy department, it does offer astronomy-based courses through the physics department. Many of these courses, such as An Introduction to the Universe and Ancient Astronomy, are designed for non-majors and require use of the telescope.

Curricular use of the telescope, Observatory Open House Nights and the eclipse viewing event in August are just some of the many ways in which Kemp and the Mittelman Observatory team have connected the community to the resources necessary to appreciate and understand astronomy. Visit go/observatory to see what events are on the observatory calendar for the fall.