There’s an eclipse coming up on August 21st, and even with the best possible planning, you won’t be able to see it for longer than two minutes and 40 seconds. That’s the maximum amount of time the moon’s shadow will be visible overlapping the sun from directly in the eclipse’s path, which stretches all the way across the continental US. Scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), working in cooperation with NASA, aim to monitor the eclipse continuously for much longer. How? They’ve rigged a pair of jets with telescopes to chase the eclipse.
By making the planes into mobile observatories, the researchers will be able to track the eclipse as it moves across the Earth. NASA already had the perfect aircraft to make it happen, too. The high-altitude WB-57F is used by the agency to capture images of cloud formations and study climate, but now two of them have been repurposed for “airborne astronomy.” Amir Caspi, a solar astrophysicist with the SwRI is leading the project, which is one of eleven NASA decided to fund for the rare eclipse.
The jets will fly 70 miles apart, placing them at each edge of the total eclipse zone that runs from Oregon to South Carolina. The jets, however, are launching from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. They’ll meet up with the eclipse 50,000 feet above Missouri, and will keep with it as it passes over Illinois and Tennessee.
The telescopes observing the eclipse are mounted on the nose of each aircraft. One telescope is tuned to capture visible light and the other will see infrared. An eclipse is an unprecedented opportunity to gather data on the sun’s corona and to understand how the loops of plasma on its surface remain so smooth. That’s something our current models of the sun don’t predict. The infrared camera will also be able to generate the first heat map of Mercury during the eclipse, which is usually blotted out by the sun.
This is the first total solar eclipse that has passed over the entire US since 1918, and technology has obviously advanced dramatically in the last 99 years. The SwRI airborne astronomy project is just one of the many experiments taking place that day that could improve our understanding of the sun. You probably don’t have access to any high-altitude jets to monitor the eclipse, but Google is putting together a network of ground observers who might be able to crowdsource a similar eclipse archive.