Chasing the eclipse with sounding rockets and high-altitude aircraft

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Eclipses arouse awe and bring people together to observe an amazing celestial phenomenon, but these cosmic events also enable scientists to uncover the secrets of the solar system.

During the Total solar eclipse On April 8, when The Moon will temporarily obscure the face of the Sun From the eyes of millions of people Mexico, the United States and Canadamultiple experiments will be conducted to better understand some of the biggest unsolved questions about the golden orb.

NASA will launch sounding rockets and WB-57 aircraft at high altitudes to conduct research on aspects of the Sun and Earth that can only be achieved during an eclipse. These efforts are part of a long history of attempts to collect invaluable data and observations when the Moon temporarily blocks sunlight.

Bill Stafford/NASA

Each of NASA's WB-57 high-altitude research aircraft is flown by a single pilot, with an instrument specialist in the back seat.

Perhaps one of the most famous scientific milestones associated with the eclipse occurred on May 29, 1919, when a total solar eclipse provided evidence of its occurrence. Albert Einstein's theory of general relativitywhich was first systematically described by the scientist in 1916, according to NASA.

Einstein had suggested that gravity is the result of distortions of time and space, distorting the very fabric of the universe. For example, Einstein suggested that the gravitational influence of a large object such as the Sun could deflect light from another object, such as a star, roughly behind it, causing the object to appear slightly distant from Earth's perspective. A scientific stargazing expedition from Brazil and West Africa, led by English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington during the 1919 eclipse, revealed that some stars actually appeared in the wrong place, confirming Einstein's theory.

This discovery is just one of many scientific lessons learned regarding the eclipse.

During the The 2017 eclipse that crossed the United StatesNASA and other space agencies conducted observations using 11 different spacecraft and two high-altitude aircraft.

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Data collected during this eclipse helped scientists accurately predict what the corona, or the sun's hot outer atmosphere, will look like during eclipses in 2019 and 2021. Despite the scorching temperatures, the corona is fainter in appearance than the sun's bright surface, but it appears as a halo around the sun during an eclipse when the moon blocks most of the sunlight, making it easier to study.

Why the corona is millions of degrees hotter than the Sun's actual surface is one of the enduring mysteries about our star. A 2021 study revealed some new clues, showing that the corona maintains a constant temperature, even though the Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of waxing and waning activity. These results were possible thanks to eclipse observations over more than a decade, according to the American “space” website. NASA.

While the sun is quieter during previous eclipses, the sun reaches its peak activity. It is called solar maximumThis year, giving scientists a rare opportunity.

During the solar eclipse on April 8, Citizen scientists And Teams of researchers can make new discoveries Which will likely enhance our understanding of our corner of the universe.

Observing the Sun during an eclipse also helps scientists better understand how solar material flows from the Sun. Charged particles known as plasma create space weather that interacts with the upper layer of Earth's atmosphere, called the ionosphere. The region acts as a boundary between the Earth's lower atmosphere and space.

Allison Stancil/NASA

Three sounding rockets will be launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on April 8 to study the eclipse.

Active solar activity released by the Sun during solar maximum can interfere with the International Space Station and communications infrastructure. Many low-Earth orbit satellites operate with radio waves in the ionosphere, which means dynamic space weather has an impact on GPS and long-distance radio communications.

Experiments to study the ionosphere during the eclipse include high-altitude balloons and a citizen science endeavor called Participation of amateur radio operators. Operators at different locations will record the strength of their signals and how far they travel during the eclipse to see how changes in the ionosphere affect the signals. The researchers also conducted this experiment during the annular eclipse in October 2023, when the moon did not completely block sunlight, and the data is still being analyzed.

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In another repeated experiment, Three sounding missiles will be launched respectively from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia before, during and after the eclipse to measure how the sudden disappearance of sunlight affects Earth's upper atmosphere.

Aroh Barjatya, a professor of engineering physics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, leads the experiment called atmospheric turbulence around the eclipse path, which was first performed during an annular solar eclipse in October.

Each rocket will eject four soda bottle-sized science instruments within the overall trajectory to measure changes in ionospheric temperature, particle density, and electric and magnetic fields at an altitude of about 55 to 310 miles (90 to 500 kilometers) above the Earth's surface.

“Understanding the ionosphere and developing models to help us predict disturbances are critical to ensuring that our increasingly communications-dependent world runs smoothly,” Barjatya said in a statement.

The sounding rockets will reach a maximum altitude of 260 miles (420 kilometers) during the flight.

During the annular eclipse of 2023, instruments on rockets measured sharp and instantaneous changes in the ionosphere.

“We saw disturbances capable of affecting radio communications in the second and third rockets, but not during the first rocket, which was before the peak of the local eclipse,” Barjatya said. “We are very excited to relaunch it during the total eclipse, to see if the disturbances start at the same altitude and if their size and scale remain the same.”

Three different experiments will fly on NASA's high-altitude research aircraft known as WB-57s.

The WB-57s can carry nearly 9,000 pounds (4,082 kg) of scientific instruments up to 60,000 to 65,000 feet (18,288 to 19,812 meters) above the Earth's surface, said Peter Layshock, NASA's airborne science program manager. The backbone of NASA's airborne science program. WB-57 High Altitude Research Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The benefits of using WB-57 aircraft are that the pilot and equipment operator can fly above the clouds for approximately 6 1/2 hours without refueling within the path of totality that extends across Mexico and the United States, allowing for continuous, unobstructed viewing. The planes' flight path means that the instruments will be in the moon's shadow for a longer period than they would be on Earth. Layshock said that four minutes of total eclipse on Earth is equivalent to six minutes of total eclipse on board.

One experiment will also focus on the ionosphere using an instrument called an ionosonde, which works like radar by sending out high-frequency radio signals and listening to the echoes as they bounce off the ionosphere to measure how many charged particles it contains.

The other two experiments will focus on corona. One project will use cameras and spectrometers to reveal more details about the temperature and chemical composition of the coronal, as well as capture data about large explosions of solar material from the Sun known as coronal mass ejections.

Amir Kaspi/Courtesy of NASA

Airplanes have specialized noses that can carry specialized scientific instruments.

Another project, led by Amir Kaspi, a principal scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, aims to capture images of the eclipse from 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above the Earth's surface in hopes of spying structures and details inside the Earth. Middle and lower wreath. Using high-speed, high-resolution cameras, capable of taking images in visible and infrared light, the experiment will also search for asteroids orbiting within the sun's glare.

“In the infrared, we don't really know what we're going to see, and that's part of the puzzle of these rare observations,” Caspi said. “Each eclipse gives you a new opportunity to expand on things as you take what you learned in the last eclipse and solve a new piece of the puzzle.”

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