Kemp High School students practice tracking the sun with their telescope. Shelby Tauber for The Washington Post

There’s one stoplight in Kemp, Tex. About 1,200 people live in this city, roughly 45 miles southeast of Dallas. Asked what they do for fun, high school students shrug and mention the Dairy Queen.

But for 4 minutes, and 17 seconds on Monday, Kemp will become a scientific hot spot as the city is engulfed in the moon’s shadow during the total solar eclipse. To prepare, five high school students have given up their weekends and free periods for months to rehearse their roles in a grand, transcontinental, citizen-science project funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

The Kemp team, like 34 others scattered across the eclipse’s path, will take rapid-fire images of the sun in polarized light. Scientists plan to stitch together the data to create an hour-long movie of the spiky halo of the corona – the mysterious outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere that comes into view during totality.

It’s a big deal. The Kemp team is making custom eclipse T-shirts, modeled after swag from a major concert tour, with tiny Kemp highlighted alongside big cities such as Dallas and Cleveland. The students’ names will be included in a scientific study describing the results. And they’ll get to keep the equipment – which will be the foundation for a new astronomy club.

“We’re a really small town,” said Zoe Brooks, a senior who has been spending the third period practicing on the telescope, pointing it out the window of a classroom. “We’ve never really had a chance to do anything like this. It’s part of why I’m so excited.”



The 2024 eclipse is arguably an even bigger event than the last one to cross the country in 2017. Totality will sweep over major American cities, meaning an estimated 31 million people will be able to experience it simply by stepping outside.

But the beauty of an eclipse is that it doesn’t just hit the big cities. It will also touch spots like Kemp, offering residents there a chance to participate in the Citizen CATE (Continental-America Telescope Eclipse) 2024 project.

When Kyle Rimler, the science department chair at Kemp High School, signed up for Citizen CATE 2024, he had no idea of the magnitude of the project. But when he brought the students to a regional training at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, he saw a lot of adults. The Kemp team stood out because it was led by children.

Members of the Kemp team align a telescope to Polar North as they practice setting up their equipment. Shelby Tauber for The Washington Post

It’s been a community effort. The Kemp students will be heading Site 7, bringing their telescope setup to farmland next to a gravel pit in the nearby town of Rosser, Tex. They secured access to the spot, which is even closer to the centerline of the eclipse than Kemp, with the help of their school’s assistant principal, Kasie Hodges, who put the team in contact with the landowner.

Billy House, a robotics teacher and an alum who graduated in 2008, sees the eclipse as a turning point for the students. He hopes that it will help open their eyes to opportunities that may seem impossibly distant.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in our town. This is a huge deal for us,” House said. “I take pride in this now, but I hope our students from this point on will take pride in us doing something so big.”


The same is true for Alejandra Martinez, a seventh-grade science teacher in Eagle Pass, Tex., a city on the border with Mexico. Martinez is also part of a CATE team and is excited to give her students a glimpse of what it’s like to collect data.

“I’m a big believer in: If the kids can see it, they can be it,” Martinez said. “We don’t have museums. We don’t have a big university. We don’t have scientists come into the classrooms and stuff. … Hopefully, this is going to open doors for them and they’ll see, ‘This is something I can do.’”

That’s a key part of Citizen CATE 2024, which aims to advance public outreach in addition to solar science.

On the science side, it’s a major opportunity. Normally, eclipses give researchers only a fleeting, minutes-long glimpse of the corona, the scorching-hot outer atmosphere of the sun. Scientists can use instruments called coronagraphs to re-create eclipses and visualize this dynamic layer.

The eclipse offers a clear view of the middle corona, a zone that is typically hard to observe, where magnetic structures interact and help drive the solar wind. This stream of charged particles from the sun can cause geomagnetic effects on Earth, such as lighting up the auroras. On rare occasions, bigger bursts of particles from the corona aimed at Earth can mess with radio communications and even the power grid.

“If you’re at a single station on the ground, you’re only going to get a few minutes of observing, and that really limits what you can observe, especially if you’re trying to look for things that change on the sun,” said Amir Caspi, a solar physicist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., who is leading the Citizen CATE 2024 project.


Scientists have also tried to keep up with the eclipse by flying planes in the path of totality, but CATE offers a different approach.

“You let the eclipse chase you, and you deploy a whole bunch of stations that are all identical, all along the eclipse path, and then the eclipse sort of does a bucket brigade,” Caspi said.

It also gives non-experts across the path the experience of setting up equipment, troubleshooting and taking data that will provide a new view of our star.


In the weeks leading up to the eclipse, the CATE teams have been doing dry runs. It’s been a learning experience, whether it means wrestling with firmware updates in the field or solving logistical problems, such as finding a power supply or shade to help shield delicate electronics from the hot sun.

Students at Kemp High School balance the telescope on a mount as they practice their setup for the project known as Citizen CATE 2024. Shelby Tauber for The Washington Post

“I’ve always seen telescopes but never knew anything of how it worked,” said Andrea Rivera, a math major at Sul Ross State University who has been training other teams how to use the equipment. “I was scared because it’s something I didn’t know, but I was also very curious.”


Even finding a site and getting access has been an issue. Catarino Morales III is a biologist at Southwest Texas Junior College who is a CATE state coordinator and is working with a team based out of Uvalde, Tex. He said that their original site was in the middle of a field where cattle graze, far from the road. That was less than ideal for an all-day data-gathering mission, without electricity, bathrooms or shade.

They called up a friend whose family oversees a property down the road and got permission to set up there instead.

“We were just fortunate – the moon and stars aligned,” Morales said.

In Kemp, the students had to secure a power source. The band director, a self-described space nerd, was happy to lend them a generator. During a practice run in late February, the team had the telescope all setup but had to drive a few minutes away to the nearest restroom.

When they got back, Katy Kiser, a junior, noticed that something was off. The telescope controls were doing the opposite of what they should be doing. She ultimately figured out on her own how to fix it.

“Our goal is they do this whole thing,” Rimler said. “This is for them and not us.”

By 5 a.m. on the day of the eclipse, the students will be on their way to Rosser, the early start giving them ample time to set up their telescope before totality starts at 1:41 p.m.

The excitement – and the pressure – is building. Kiser said she has always been interested in science, but the opportunity to participate in real research has only made her more sure that it’s the career path she wants to follow.

“We have some practices where everything goes smoothly, and others where it goes not so smoothly,” Kiser said. “I’m getting more excited for doing it, but it’s also a lot more nerve-racking.”

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