Astrophysics major Jacob Arbogast contributing to national research project on April 8 eclipse

by | Apr 1, 2024

Arbogast is assisting with a project led by former UMSL postdoctoral fellow and faculty member David J. Horne, now an assistant professor at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Jacob Arbogast standing outside the Millennium Student Center with a sonic anemometer

Jacob Arbogast shows off the sonic anemometer he will deploy near Doniphan, Missouri, on April 8 during a total solar eclipse. Arbogast is assisting with a national research project being led by former UMSL postdoctoral fellow David J. Horne, now an assistant professor at Gannon University. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Jacob Arbogast is aiming to be on the road very early next Monday morning. He hopes to get ahead of the throngs of other motorists heading to southeast Missouri to view the total solar eclipse as it passes through the sky early that afternoon.

Arbogast has a spot picked out in Doniphan, Missouri, some 180 miles southwest of St. Louis in rural Ripley County, and is expecting to have plenty of company when he arrives, despite the seemingly remote location.

“Doniphan actually is one of the longer totalities in Missouri,” Arbogast said.

On average, about 375 years pass between total eclipses occurring in the same place, so people across Missouri – and from far beyond – have been planning for months now to catch the April 8 occurrence. The path of totality will span more than 115 miles of south and southeastern Missouri, stretching from Cape Girardeau to West Plains, between 1:55 p.m. and 2:04 p.m., and once it’s gone, it will likely be hundreds of years before it returns.

Arbogast isn’t just an ordinary stargazer. The senior astrophysics major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis is taking part in a national experiment, led by David J. Horne, a former postdoctoral fellow and faculty member in UMSL’s Department of Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy and Statistics and now an assistant professor at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He’ll be deploying a sonic anemometer that Horne shipped to him in mid-March to collect data during the event.

Horne is looking to collect weather data during the time of totality at six different sites across the country: Niagara Falls, New York, Erie and Doniphan as well as locations in Indiana, Arkansas and Texas.

“It’s going to give us wind speed, wind direction, pressure, humidity and temperature,” Horne said of the device. “Then we’ve got a GPS logger on there, so it will know exactly where it is and what time it is. It’s also got a secondary pressure sensor to back up the primary one just to make sure everything’s working, and a light sensor, of course, because we want to see what’s going on in terms of the illumination level from the sun.”

Many people have described feeling differences in wind speed or abrupt changes in wind direction during earlier eclipses elsewhere on the globe.

“Nobody’s really bothered to measure it,” Arbogast said. “I think I saw in some of David’s slides, there is maybe someone who set up one of these somewhere in Texas during an eclipse, so that’s one data point. But one data point doesn’t confirm anything.

“It’s not like you get too many opportunities. You can’t exactly recreate this in the lab, so you’ve just got to work with it when you can.”

Arbogast is excited to be contributing to Horne’s project, even if he hadn’t had a particular interest in eclipses before it started.

He has long been captivated by the cosmos and trying to understand the world around him.

“If you follow that road long enough and you ask enough questions, that will lead you to a physics classroom because they have the best answers that we have to a lot of those questions,” Arbogast said. “Some people don’t like that they can’t really give you any of the whys: Why are we here? Why is this here? And why is this the way it is? But it can tell you the how. People often don’t know how much of the history of the universe you can piece together that we do know, and it paints a really broad and rich story.”

Arbogast began studying physics at St. Louis Community College, earning his associate degree in 2012. He looked into transferring to UMSL then, finding it an affordable option that offered access to all the tools he needed, including an observatory and planetarium on campus.

At the same time, he also was offered a full-time job with CitiMortgage and made what he thought was a prudent decision to accept it. The money and security seemed too good to pass up. He wound up staying there almost eight years, though a part of him knew it wasn’t the right career path.

In 2020, Arbogast returned to the trail he believes he should’ve followed all along, enrolling at UMSL and studying astrophysics.

He’d only been at the university a couple of months when he answered an email from Professor and Chair Erika Gibb seeking a student to help run the planetarium in the Research Building and lead presentations for outside groups. He’s been working there ever since.

It’s just one of the ways Arbogast has gotten involved around campus. He also has served a term as president of the Physics Club, spent time as a teaching assistant and worked as an intern with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Along the way, he’s found support and encouragement from UMSL faculty members.

“The program has been great, and all the teachers are great,” Arbogast said.

It was his position at the planetarium that first connected him with Horne. Last year, Gibb asked him to work on updating a video Horne first made to inform audiences about eclipses ahead of a 2017 occurance that passed through the St. Louis region. The two corresponded on a few occasions as Arbogast tried to build in new information about next week’s event.

That made Arbogast a logical choice when Horne started looking for someone to deploy one of his anemometers in Missouri.

His involvement with the project won’t end next week. He’s slated to give a presentation near the end of the month to the Missouri Space Grant Consortium, and he’s also planning a brief talk for some of his colleagues at NGA.

“It is just fun to be part of a scientific endeavor, especially one that’s new,” Arbogast said. “A lot of times – and especially if you’re an undergraduate – if you’re part of a lot of scientific projects, often it’s kind of a proof of concept. In my astronomy class, my project is to try to do some ‘basic observational astronomy’ to prove a variable star is in fact a variable. But we already know it’s variable. That science has already been done. It is just an exercise to show that if I had needed to do it, I could do it. You know the answer before you begin.

“In this project, we don’t know the answer yet. It’s something new, and that’s a little bit gratifying because if you are successful, then you add a new page to the book. You’re holding on to some little piece of new human knowledge that didn’t exist before.”

The path of totality for the April 8 solar eclipse will pass over southeast and southern Missouri. The UMSL campus is just outside of that path, but people in the 63121 ZIP Code are still expected to see 98.8% coverage. The Office of Student Involvement is joining with UMSL Human Resources, the Staff Association and the Faculty Senate to host a Solar Eclipse Watch Party from 1:30-2:30 p.m. outside the MSC. The event will feature space-themed snacks and music, and viewing glasses will be available.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik