The eclipse of 21st August will be the first in almost a hundred years to affect the entire continental United States.
- The total solar eclipse that is supposed to be on 21st August will track towards the east across the US commencing at around 9 a.m. PDT.
- NASA will be flying “eclipse jets” in order to make the totality (when the moon blocks the sun) last three times as long.
- With the help of telescopes, the jets will study the sun’s outer atmosphere also known as the corona.
As the eclipse tracks eastwards most Americans in the path of the umbra (the region where the moon casts its darkest shadow) would experience this weird phenomenon of totality for about two and a half minutes.
In the US, the eclipse is supposed to begin at around 9 a.m. PDT in Oregon and end at around 4 p.m. in South Carolina. (Find out the exact time for your location with NASA’s interactive eclipse map.)
But scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado who have also been funded by NASA have devised a plan to counter any potential cloudy weather conditions and increase the duration of the totality to about seven minutes which is nearly three times the actual time seen on ground.
Under the leadership of the space scientist Amir Caspi, a part of the team will fly in two of NASA’s high speed ‘eclipse jets’ in order to follow the shadow as it drifts towards the east.
This expedition is one among a total of eleven research projects that have been funded by NASA regarding this total solar eclipse.
How to chase a total solar eclipse
The WB-57F aircrafts, as they are officially referred to, shall take off from Ellington Field, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
After reaching a height of 50,000 feet, they shall fly across Missouri, Illinois, and Tennessee while chasing the umbra.
Each aircraft has an array of scientific instruments attached to its nose. There is also a pair of telescopes that is supposed to point at the sun and capture the clearest photos of the sun’s corona.
Scientists still haven’t been able to figure out why the sun’s corona is millions of degrees hotter than the sun’s surface which has a temperature of nearly 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the setbacks is that it is very difficult to study the corona as it is a lot dimmer than the sun’s main disk. Moreover, instruments in NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory have become obsolete and neither are recent camera models capable of recording it.
“The problem is that SDO doesn’t image quickly enough…for what we are trying to study, and it also doesn’t look far enough away from the solar surface,” as Capsi told Business Insider in an email.
But the moon is exactly the size of the sun’s disk when viewed from the earth. Thus when the moon comes in front of the sun, it will reveal the wispy corona stretching for millions of miles deep into space from the sun’s surface. Scientists believe that this will let them record the scene with advanced instruments.
Caspi and his team of researchers shall be primarily looking for Alfven Waves. It is a high speed phenomenon that had been discovered in 2007. Scientists believe that these waves might somehow be the reason why the sun’s corona is so much hotter.
“Extending the observing time and going to very high altitude might allow us to see a few events or track waves that would be essentially invisible in just two minutes of observations from the ground,” says Dan Seaton a scientist in the project, in a NASA press release on Tuesday.
On top of analysing Alfven Waves scientists also wish to point their telescopes towards Mercury before and after the totality in order to map the surface temperatures of the planet.
According to NASA, this will help us know about the planet’s soil composition and this might help scientists figure out how Mercury and other rocky planets came into being.