In about a week's time, tens of thousands of people will converge on the tiny town of Madras, Oregon, in what for many will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience a total solar eclipse.
And although the event is far from the San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory is aiming to be at the center of the action in this tiny central Oregon town.
The observatory is planning to bring more than 20 telescopes fitted with special solar filters, six astronomers, thousands of solar eyeglasses and about 80 volunteers and staffers to Madras High School, where the observatory will host a massive star party and a daylong eclipse event on Aug. 21.
Spanning the school’s football field and performing arts center, the eclipse day event will feature hourly astronomer talks, science demonstrations and experiments and a narration of the eclipse itself, from first contact through totality. The Science Channel also will be broadcasting the entire event and two big screens set up on Lowell’s Flagstaff campus will show the live feed as part of its eclipse day festivities.
“This is going to be easily the highest profile astronomical event since the New Horizons Pluto flyby,” Lowell director Jeff Hall said in explaining the observatory’s involvement in Madras. “Since we have to go somewhere else (to see the eclipse) since we’re not in the path of totality, we saw it as a way we could help the town of Madras make the day a little more special.”
Lowell is planning for up to 4,000 attendees at the Oregon event, Hall said.
MONTHS OF PLANNING
Planning for Madras has been no small feat. Lowell hired contractor Sonja Gonzalez to take the lead in organizing the trip, which has been in the works for about a year, she said. In addition to the public events, Gonzalez was in charge of making arrangements for nearly 300 people who are members of Lowell or have other connections to the observatory to attend the Madras viewing.
Sitting in her office surrounded by items being prepped for Oregon, Gonzalez said the Lowell team has booked hotels, made travel plans, mapped out the closest Sam’s Club for last-minute supplies and participated in conference calls with state and local agencies about traffic and emergency information. Many people associated with Lowell’s trip are staying in Bend, Oregon, about 45 minutes away, so to make sure they will arrive in Madras with plenty of time to spare for the eclipse, Lowell has its five rented tour buses scheduled to hit the road at 2:30 a.m., Gonzalez said.
OTHERS ON BOARD
Lowell won’t be the only organization representing Flagstaff in Madras. Groups from the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy and Northern Arizona University will be there as well.
FALA Science and Engineering Instructor Rich Krueger is taking a group that includes nine current and former students. They will have their own setup on the Madras High School football field where, among other activities, they will demonstrate how the eclipse presents an opportunity to observe the space-time warpage described by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Demo materials they're packing for the trip include a trampoline, stretchy fabric, a fiberoptic cable setup and lots of different-sized balls that will be used to simulate different planets, Krueger said.
Dylan Chapman, a FALA alumnus who is going on the trip, said the chance to teach others about scientific concepts helps him better understand them himself.
There’s also the appeal of being in the midst of “a lot of really smart people in a really small space,” and getting the chance to hear those people’s talks Chapman said.
Krueger put it similarly.
“It’s kind of like the Woodstock of celestial happenings," he said.
Also part of the Flagstaff contingent in Madras will be a group of students and teachers from the NAU Center for Science Teaching and Learning’s NAUTeach program. The program focuses on training secondary math and science teachers, so it made sense to bring students to what will be a prime opportunity to practice teaching and spreading awareness about science, said Sharon Cardenas and David Thompson, both with NAUTeach.
A group of three sophomores from the program will be running a variety of space-related activities for elementary and middle school-aged students during eclipse day.
Being in front of thousands of people interested in science provides great exposure for the NAUTeach program while also helping keep current students excited about teaching science and math, the two said.
This is one opportunity to show future teachers that learning doesn’t have to be restricted to sitting in the classroom reading through a textbook, Thompson said.
“We want to have our students see you can do these other things outside and do real science and math with the kids,” he said.
Another NAU group will be heading to Land of Yankee Fork State Park in central Idaho. Kathleen Stigmon, with NAU’s NASA Space Grant program, will take four members of the university’s astronomy club to lead solar viewing programs Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the state park, which is on the edge of the path of totality.
Stigmon said the trip was a way that NAU as a Space Grant school could get involved in eclipse events.