Virginia Tech team prepares for special project during total solar eclipse

An electrical engineering team at Virginia Tech prepares for the total eclipse on August 21. (Photo: Annie Andersen)

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WSET)-- Forget beach days and vacations. A team at Virginia Tech is giving up their summer vacation to stay at school and study.

It's in preparation for what some are calling a once in a lifetime opportunity - a total solar eclipse that's happening on August 21.

Electrical Engineering professor Greg Earle says he's been planning for this event for years. After learning about the upcoming eclipse, Earle proposed projects studying the eclipse to both NASA and the National Science Foundation, and both were accepted.

"Basically what we're going to be sending up signals, bouncing them off the ionosphere, which is just a conductive layer of the atmosphere, and then timing how long it takes them to come back down, said Earle. He then added, "Imagine that you're sitting at a desk and you've got a paper map spread out and you hold a magnifying glass over a section of the map." Earle then compared that to the eclipse, saying, "Well, the eclipse is going to do exactly the same thing, but not to frequencies or wavelengths that we see, it's going to do the same thing for the wavelengths that radio operates at."

For the eclipse, Earle and his students will be going to different places in the country where the eclipse is expected to be the best. Those include Bend, Oregon, Kansas, and South Carolina.

Undergraduate student Magda Moses says she can't believe that she gets to do work with NASA and the NSF, saying "This is what I always wanted to do. I wanted to get involved in research early. I guess I got lucky."

Graduate student Lee Kordella is working almost as a manager, so he gets to work on different aspects of the project. "It's a really rare opportunity. Especially to work on such a larger project"

As the eclipse gets closer, the team is working on Moses' back yard doing trials and test runs, making sure everything is working as planned. When the eclipse comes, they want to be able to enjoy this once in a lifetime opportunity.

For their research to work, the team doesn't need to be able to see the eclipse, but that doesn't mean they won't be heartbroken if they don't get to see it.

"After 3 years of waiting to see this, it would be kind of disappointing," said Moses.

Solar eclipses happen about twice a year, but the last time a full solar eclipse was visible from the continental United States was in 1979, and the last time it went coast to coast was all the way back in 1918.