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Posted in on April 5, 2024

Wilbanks using the eclipse to study sun’s corona

University of Michigan doctoral student Kathryn Wilbanks is back home in Arlington this week. But it’s not for a vacation or to get away from the snow. She’s here for the eclipse.

The student in Michigan’s climate and space sciences and engineering department is here with a team from UM that is preparing to take advantage of the eclipse to gain important new knowledge about the sun’s atmosphere.

The Lamar High School and UT Arlington graduate is also big on giving back. So, she’s visiting schools in the district she graduated from to share her research with local students and help them get ready for the once-in-a-lifetime event.

Her Arlington ISD tour took her to Pearcy STEM Academy yesterday where she met with three groups of fifth graders.

It’s not news to anyone that there’s a total eclipse coming to the Metroplex on Monday. But Wilbanks explained to the students the science behind why this is happening, how rare it is to be in the path of totality and exactly what to expect.

She had students acting out the behavior of the Earth, moon and sun, spinning around as they imitated the orbits.

“This is what happens during a total solar eclipse,” Wilbanks – whose father is Arlington ISD trustee David Wilbanks – explained to the students. “We’ve got the moon blocking out the sun. It just so happens that they’re all on the same plane – they’re all sharing the same line.”

The whole process is fascinating.

“It’s not just that it’s going to get dark,” she said. “There’s actually a lot of cool phenomena and interesting things that happen with the moon covering the sun and with totality itself.”

At the beginning, “you’re going to start seeing the moon take a bite out of the sun,” she said.

That’s when you start seeing the unusual, crescent-shaped shadows.

“About 15 minutes before totality, it’s going to start getting a lot darker,” Wilbanks said. “It’s going to get dark enough that a lot of insects and animals are actually going to think it’s twilight. So, they’re going to start coming out. You’ll hear birds chirping. You’ll hear insects making their little songs … Sometimes bats will even come out.”

At two minutes before totality, you can see shadow bands. The bands are thin strips of light that appear wobbly – like they’re dancing.

Then seconds before the moon totally covers the sun, you can see – with your eclipse glasses on – Bailey’s Beads. These are beads of bright sunlight shining through the valleys and craters of the moon.

Finally, totality comes. And darkness. Totality will hit Arlington around 1:40 p.m. and last between 3-4 minutes. That’s when viewers will be able to see the sun’s outer atmosphere – the corona.

Totality is why Wilbanks is here.

It also doesn’t hurt that it’s a chance to escape the snow still hanging around in Ann Arbor. North Texas doesn’t just have an eclipse on Monday – it has spring, too. The Texas native found her first Michigan winter – a “mild winter” by Michigan standards – to be a bit of a shock.

But Wilbanks main concern with weather right now is the forecast for Monday in Arlington. She and her team from Michigan are hoping the cloudy conditions forecasted will give way to clear skies and an unobstructed view of the eclipse.

Kathryn Wilbanks talk to high school students about upcoming total solar eclipseShe is part of a graduate student-led partnership between UM and UT Arlington’s physics department that is forecasting what observers will see during the total solar eclipse and modeling what the corona looks like. Only by viewing the eclipse in totality can they find out if their model is correct.

“During a total solar eclipse, the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is visible,” she said. “Our goal is to forecast the visible corona using an advanced physics model called the SWMF (Space Weather Modeling Framework). We will then compare it to observations made along the path of totality (weather permitting).” Wilbank’s team has a website they are updating with forecasts throughout the week. They will also livestream during the eclipse on Youtube, talking to experts in the field and comparing their SWMF model results to observations.

Hopefully the weather cooperates. If it does, Wilbanks’ team will collect the data it needs and everyone in DFW will get to experience something none of us will be alive to see here again. The last total solar eclipse in North Texas was in 1878, and the next one won’t come here for another 300-plus years.

But regardless, students at Pearcy – and six other Arlington ISD schools – got the unique and memorable opportunity to learn all about eclipses from a space physicist, thanks to Wilbanks.

Cloudy weather can’t eclipse that.