Southwest Research scientists to 'chase the moon's shadow' in planes

Researchers using rare solar eclipse to study the sun's corona

By Justin Horne - Weather Authority Meteorologist/Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - For most in the path, the total solar eclipse will last about two minutes, but for a few researchers, the rare event is scheduled to last over seven minutes.

"We are flying a couple of NASA's WB-57 high altitude research jets,” Dr. Amir Caspi, with the Southwest Research Institute, said.

Traveling at 450 mph, scientists from the San Antonio-based SwRI will be chasing the moon’s shadow.

"The shadow is traveling at about 1,450 miles per hour. The airplanes will be able to get a little bit less than four minutes (in the eclipse) per plane,” said Caspi.

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With two planes, it will allow for around seven and half minutes underneath the total solar eclipse. It has been done before, but not with planes like this and not with state-of-the-art telescopes mounted to the nose of the planes.

"Because of the equipment that we have on board, we hope that these will be the best quality, highest fidelity observations that will have been made of their kind,” Caspi said.

But why would scientists need to do this?

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It is a chance to study something scientists rarely get a good look at.

"A total eclipse provides a unique opportunity to study the solar corona,” said Caspi.

Otherwise known as the outer atmosphere of the sun, the corona is usually overpowered by emissions from the sun itself -- making it impossible to see or study. But during the eclipse, the glare is blocked and the mysterious corona is visible. It is an important study for those of us on Earth.

"It puts out solar flares; it puts out coronal mass ejections,” Caspi said of the corona.

Flares can cause power and GPS outages on Earth.

In the end, there is one main question the scientists want answered: "Why is the corona so hot? It’s millions of degrees hotter than the solar surface,” Caspi said.

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In addition, the mission will also attempt the first ever thermal images of the surface temperature variations on Mercury.

The operation is funded by NASA.

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