Worcester State community takes part in historic 2024 solar eclipse

April 16, 2024
By: Paul Davey

A solar eclipse is generally thought to be a must-see phenomena, but it is rare that it is accessible to so many people. As millions flocked to hotspots across

The 2024 solar eclipse captured by Professor Nabin Malakar with a telescope on the Worcester State campus. (Photo courtesy of Professor Malakar)

the nation to view this year’s solar eclipse on April 8, Worcester State University joined in the celebration of the historic astronomical event with an eclipse party on campus and a astronomy class trip to Vermont in the path of totality.

Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the sun and earth, temporarily blocking sunlight from reaching the planet. They occur fairly regularly, but do not always pass over areas that are easily reached by people. NASA estimates that more than 31 million people live in the most recent solar eclipse’s path of totality, with an additional 150 million being within 200 miles of the path.

The path of totality is the range in which the moon can be seen blocking out the sun in its entirety during the short period of time that is known as a total solar eclipse. This year’s eclipse had a path of totality that was 108 to 122 miles wide, which is wider than the 2017 eclipse that passed from west to east across the United States.

In New England, eclipse watchers had ideal conditions for viewing the event, with clear skies and few clouds. By mid-afternoon at Worcester State, hundreds of students, faculty and staff had gathered on blankets and chairs on the lawn between Ghosh and the Administration buildings for an eclipse watch party. Faculty members handed out solar glasses and set up three telescopes and tables where students could make eclipse t-shirts. For many students, it was the first time they experienced a solar eclipse.

“Ever since middle school I’ve been fascinated by space and astronomy,” said Petraq Mele,
a sophomore computer science major and astronomy minor who had the opportunity to operate one of the telescopes. “The eclipse is just mind boggling.”

Physics professor Nabin Malakar, who helped to organize the watch party, spent time talking with students about the solar event and instructing them on how to use the telescopes.

“This is great,” he said. “A few hundred years ago you wouldn’t be able to explain what was going on. It’s a teaching moment for science and STEM for how our solar system works. The whole universe is yours to explore.”

At 3:28 p.m. the eclipse had reached 93% blockage in Worcester, and the air temperature dropped. Across the lawn, students applauded.

Meanwhile, a group of students led by physics professor Andrew Burkhardt viewed the total solar eclipse from more than 200 miles away in northern Vermont.

The trip was organized by Burkhardt as part of his Observational Astronomy class. They departed Worcester State in a van shortly after 8 a.m. Monday morning, and planned to travel as far into the zone of totality as possible. “Once we’re in the zone of totality, we can basically stop anywhere if we need to,” said Burkhardt on their six-hour journey north.

While the class’ initial destination was Newport, Vermont, they settled for a lawn outside of a gas station in the rural village of West Burke in order to set up their viewing equipment in time.

The group, which included eight students from Burkhardt’s class and was joined by adjunct professor Bob Kolesnik, brought three telescopes equipped with protective solar filters to observe and photograph the eclipse. After they assembled the telescopes, the students gained some hands-on experience studying the eclipse. They adjusted the equipment to achieve the best view, observed the progression of the event through solar glasses, and created a pinhole camera, a contraption made up of two paper plates and a small hole that allows for safe indirect viewing of a solar eclipse.

“I had some grand plans of experiments we could try to do for an assignment, but my main hope was just that everyone got to experience the eclipse,” said Burkhardt.

When the sunlight was completely blocked out by the moon, everyone removed their eclipse glasses and safely viewed the total eclipse. This is the only time during a solar eclipse that the use of special eye protection is not necessary. The presence of the sun hidden directly behind the moon left a halo of light around a pitch-black circle, an image that left the members of the trip astonished.

“Right when we took off the glasses, I was kind of at a loss for words. It’s something I’m going to be telling people for a long time,” said Aidan Desilets, a junior majoring in biotech with a minor in physics.

After the solar eclipse concluded at approximately 4:37 p.m, countless cars full of eclipse viewers began their southward journey out of Vermont. The route back to Worcester State would have taken around four hours under normal traffic conditions, but due to extreme delays, it took the van full of students approximately 11 hours to return to campus.

“These sorts of trips are events that can stick with you for the rest of your life. I know I certainly won’t forget about it anytime soon,” said Burkhardt.

Top photo: Students in Professor Andrew Burkhardt’s Observational Astronomy class traveled to Vermont to view the eclipse in the path of totality. (Photo courtesy of Professor Burkhardt.) Center photo carousel of the Worcester State eclipse watch party by Colin Joyal ’24.

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