Connecting the 2017 Great American Eclipse to the Cosmos

May 2017


Dr. Brandon Lawton (STScI)


  • Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan (Yale University)
  • Dr. Jason Rhodes (Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
  • Dr. Lynn Cominsky (Sonoma State University)


On August 21, 2017, the first solar eclipse to pass over the US this century will treat millions of people to spectacular views. The 14 states that will be able to observe totality, where the sun is completely eclipsed by the moon, covers a wide swath of the continental US, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.

Solar eclipses are not only amazing phenomena to witness; they can also provide observational test-beds for understanding fundamental physics of the universe. During the total solar eclipse in 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington mounted an expedition that confirmed the gravitational lensing prediction made by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Einstein’s calculations predicted that the apparent positions of stars near the Sun would shift by a distance that was two times larger than that calculated using Newtonian gravity. The success of Einstein’s new theory launched him into international prominence, dramatically changing the scientific paradigm describing space and time. During the 2017 Great American Eclipse, citizen scientists will have the opportunity to use modern equipment to repeat this historical experiment.

Solar eclipses have also offered a means of studying other phenomena near the Sun, such as the solar corona. Astrophysicists and engineers have learned to manufacture eclipses with instruments called coronagraphs and use these to study regions around our sun and other stars.

Solar eclipses are intrinsically tied to two fundamental questions that NASA’s astrophysics missions are directly exploring – “How Does the Universe Work?” and “Are We Alone?” For this Universe of Learning Science Briefing, our presenters will discuss:

  1. the connection between solar eclipses and the study of how mass bends space-time, as described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity;
  2. how astronomers and engineers create instruments, called coronagraphs, to eclipse other stars in the pursuit of studying exoplanets; and
  3. an astrophysics-themed activity directly related to the 2017 solar eclipse.

We hope you can join us for this professional learning telecon. There will be opportunities to ask questions directly to our speakers. We will also provide a link to additional resources where you can find more information, images, videos, and activities.


Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan is a theoretical astrophysicist at Yale. She is recognized for her seminal contributions to the study of dark matter and the formation and growth of black holes. She is a phenomenologist and uses gravitational lensing observations, the deflection of light rays by matter in the universe, to map the detailed distribution of dark matter. She works more generally on lensing tests of the theoretical predictions of the standard paradigm of structure formation. Another abiding interest has been the study of the growth history of black holes over cosmic time and, in particular, the formation of the first seed black holes. She has proposed and worked on models for the formation of massive black hole seeds, direct collapse black holes and their observational signatures.

Recipient of many awards and honors for her work including the Guggenheim and Radcliffe fellowships, she also holds the Sophie and Tycho Brahe Professorship at the Dark Cosmology Center at the University of Copenhagen, and an honorary professorship for life at the University of Delhi. A fellow of the American Physical Society, she is the incoming Chair of the Division of Astrophysics at the APS. Her work has been featured in numerous news outlets including the NPR, BBC, CNN, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, ScienceNews, Scientific American, New Scientist, NOVA, National Geographic, Discover, and The New Yorker in addition to many websites devoted to science.

Dr. Jason Rhodes, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, is an astrophysicist studying the dark sector of the Universe at NASA’s JPL. After getting a BS in Physics from Harvey Mudd College, he headed east for a Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton and a stint as a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. In 2003, he moved to Caltech and JPL to develop space telescopes to study the dark matter and dark energy that make up 95% of the Universe. Jason is an expert in weak gravitational lensing, whereby foreground dark matter distorts the apparent shapes of background galaxies. He is the US lead for the European Space Agency’s Euclid dark energy mission and the JPL Project Scientist on NASA’s WFIRST mission, which will use a coronagraph to study planets around other stars. He is also leading the development of a NASA effort to incentivize powered airships as a science platform.

Dr. Lynn Cominsky is the Chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Sonoma State University (SSU), where she has been on the faculty for over thirty years. Prof. Cominsky is the founder and director of SSU’s Education and Public Outreach Group, which develops educational materials for NASA, NSF and the US Department of Education. She is a Fellow of the California Council on Science and Technology, the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Recent awards include the 2014 Aerospace Awareness award from the Women in Aerospace organization, the 2015 Sally Ride Education Award from the American Astronautical Society, the 2016 Education Prize from the American Astronomical Society and the 2016 Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University.