NASA research jets to chase great American solar eclipse on August 21

Researchers are going to chase the great American solar eclipse on August 21 using two NASA jets in a bid to capture the clearest ever images of the Sun’s outer atmosphere.

At the helm of the project is Amir Caspi of the Southwest Research Institute in the US. Amir and team will be using two of NASA’s WB-57F research jets for their quest on August 21. Each of the research jets will have telescopes mounted on the nose enabling the scientists to capture the clearest images of the Sun’s corona to date and the first-ever thermal images of Mercury, revealing how temperature varies across the planet’s surface.

The total solar eclipse provides a rare opportunity for scientists to study the Sun, particularly its atmosphere and that’s why scientists are attempting this particular feat.

“These could well turn out to be the best ever observations of high frequency phenomena in the corona,” said Dan Seaton, researcher at University of Colorado in the US.

As the Moon completely covers the Sun and perfectly blocks its light during an eclipse, the typically faint corona is easily seen against the dark sky.

During the upcoming total solar eclipse, scientists will observe the solar corona using stabilised telescopes aboard the WB-57F research aircraft. Watch NASA’s demonstration below:

This vantage point provides distinct advantages over ground-based observations, researchers said.

The corona is heated to millions of degrees, yet the lower atmospheric layers like the photosphere – the visible surface of the Sun – are only heated to a few thousand degrees. Scientists are not sure how this inversion happens.

One theory proposes micro explosions, termed nanoflares – too small and frequent to detect individually, but with a large collective effect – might release heat into the corona.

No one has yet directly seen nanoflares, but the high- resolution and high-speed images to be taken from the WB-57F jets might reveal their effects on the corona.

The high-definition pictures, captured 30 times per second, will be analysed 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.

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 onboard telescopes will avoid looking through the majority of Earth’s atmosphere, greatly improving image quality.