Apr 4, 2024 - News

NASA jets will chase the eclipse for pictures of the Sun

Photo of the eclipse

The total solar eclipse in 2017. Photo: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Two Cold War-era jets from Houston will chase the eclipse path to capture observations of the solar corona, or the outermost part of the Sun's atmosphere.

Why it matters: Aside from this experiment being really cool, the aim is to understand more about the Sun's corona — in particular, why the atmosphere of the Sun is hotter than the surface, per Scientific American.

Driving the news: Two of NASA's WB-57 jets will take off from Ellington Field and will fly southwest to Mexico, over Mazatlan, during the total solar eclipse on April 8.

  • The jets are mounted with telescopes to capture these observations, per Amir Caspi, a principal scientist at the Southwest Research Institute who is leading the project.

The intrigue: NASA flies the only remaining WB-57F aircraft, all three of which are based near the Johnson Space Center. The planes have been flying research missions since the early 1970s.

  • These jets were used for surveillance and weather reconnaissance and have now been retrofitted with modern avionics.

How it works: The cameras will capture the solar corona, which can be seen clearly only during totality. The telescopes on the nose cone and under the wing will be able to make observations of the solar corona in infrared and other wavelengths.

  • The standard laws of thermodynamics do not explain why the atmosphere of the sun is hotter than the surface. Observing the corona during an eclipse can provide insights into the physical mechanisms and the magnetic field responsible for depositing that heat.

What they're saying: "There are a lot of open questions about the sun even though it is our star," Caspi told Scientific American.

  • "People don't think of the sun as a star. They think of it as our sun, but it's a star. It's an astrophysical object and we happen to live right next to it. So I think that is really mind boggling to me, as we have this astrophysical object that tells us about processes that happen throughout the universe, and it's right here for us to measure."

Plus: NASA is doing another project called Citizen Continental-America Telescope Eclipse 2024 in which it is equipping and training 35 volunteer teams across the path of totality to capture videos of the Sun's corona using special cameras that can measure the polarization of light.

  • The two- to three-minute clips will be combined into a one-hour film that shows how the magnetic energy is converted into heat. The movie can also help scientists measure the strength of solar wind.
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