Apr 8, 2024 - News

Eclipse — chasing jets

A total solar eclipse.

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

Two Cold War-era jets will chase the eclipse path from Houston to Mexico to capture observations of the solar corona as part of a project led by San Antonio's Southwest Research Institute.

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 today.

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

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.

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