In an attempt to capture one of the rare marvels of nature: a total solar eclipse, NASA-funded scientists at Southwest Research Institute in the U.S. are planning to chase the shadow of the moon using NASA’s research jets to get hold of the clearest ever images of the Sun’s outer atmosphere.
The team, led by the space scientist Amir Caspi will use two of NASA’s WB-57F research jets to follow the darkness across the U.S. on August 21.
Taking observations from twin telescopes mounted on the noses of the planes, Caspi will capture the clearest images of the Sun's outer atmosphere—the corona—to date and the first-ever thermal images of Mercury, revealing how temperature varies across the planet's surface.
The high-definition pictures, captured 30 times per second, will be analyzed for wave motion in the corona to see if waves move towards or away from the surface of the Sun, and with what strengths and sizes.
"These could well turn out to be the best ever observations of high frequency phenomena in the corona," says Dan Seaton, co-investigator of the project and researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. "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."
The two planes, launching from Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, will observe the total eclipse for about three and a half minutes each. By flying high in the stratosphere, observations taken with telescopes on board will avoid looking through the majority of Earth’s atmosphere, greatly improving image quality.
This total solar eclipse provides a rare opportunity for scientists to study the sun, particularly its atmosphere.