The 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Will Be A Scientific Research Free-For-All

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A total solar eclipse is a sight to behold: for a few glorious minutes, day turns to night, stars twinkle in the midday sky, and the sun's corona shines from behind the black disk of our moon. But mere civilians don't get anywhere as hyped as scientists when this rare event comes around. That's because it's a singular opportunity for them to study the sun, the moon, and our own planet in ways that are usually impossible.

Gentlemen, Start Your Experiments

The reason why a total solar eclipse is so drool-inducing for astronomers, atmospheric researchers, and other scientists really comes down to the power of the sun. It's so bright that its relatively faint atmosphere is hard for researchers to study, and it radiation is so powerful that it affects the way radio signals and other communications systems travel during daytime hours. By briefly blocking the sun, an eclipse gives scientists a way to study all of the things that would be too weak or time-consuming to study with the sun out in full force.

Of course, there are also things to discover about the eclipse itself: what does the Earth look like during a total eclipse? How can we better predict where and when the next eclipse will occur? Animals freak out during eclipses — what's that about?

To take advantage of the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, scientists are doing everything from releasing balloons into the sky to chasing the shadow down in an Air Force jet. Get a load of just some of the experiments headed our way.

You Might As Well Be Starin' At The Sun

Did you know the sun has its own atmosphere? It's called the corona, and it makes up a pretty major part of our home star. It plays a big role in space weather, like solar flares and coronal mass ejections, both of which can harm electronics here on Earth. Unfortunately, because the sun shines so brightly, it's difficult to see. Scientists sometimes examine it with something called a coronagraph, which uses a disk to block out the sun and create an artificial eclipse, but the resulting image isn't as clear as the one you'd get from the real thing. Here are some of the ways scientists are planning to make big discoveries about the sun on the big day.

  • Studying the physics of the corona with visible light. Astronomers study the sun in all sorts of different wavelengths, but because most solar weather happens in ultraviolet, that's generally how they study the corona. But this project, led by Shadia Habbal at the University of Hawaii and led by NASA, aims to take advantage of the unique qualities of visible and near-infrared light to figure out exactly how the corona behaves.
  • Measuring the sun's magnetic field to understand how it creates space weather. Phil Judge and Paul Bryans of the National Center for Atmospheric Research plan to use a suite of brand-new technology to measure, image, and analyze the magnetic emission lines that stretch from the sun's magnetic field. This can help them understand how the field is oriented, and perhaps better predict future solar eruptions.
  • Chasing the eclipse in a pair of jets to measure the corona — and check out Mercury, for good measure. In what is probably the most badass eclipse experiment out there, Amir Caspi and his NASA-funded research team from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado will use two retrofitted WB-57F jet planes to follow in hot pursuit of the moon's shadow. It's not just for fun — twin telescopes mounted on the planes' noses will have a full eight minutes to take super-accurate measurements of the corona to figure out why the corona is so much hotter than the lower layers of the sun's atmosphere. Then, once the moon starts moving back out of totality, the telescopes will turn to gaze at Mercury in infrared light, thereby making new discoveries about its surface composition.

Why Ionosphere...

Although you hardly ever hear about the ionosphere, you experience its effects every time you listen to a radio or use GPS. It's a region of the Earth's atmosphere starting 30 miles (50 km) up where solar and cosmic radiation strips electrons from atoms in a process called ionization. Ionized particles are electrically charged, and those charged particles help radio waves bounce across this layer to travel further than they would ordinarily. But signals don't always travel through the ionosphere the way you'd expect, and by studying this important region in experiments like the ones below, scientists can begin to figure out why.

  • Recruiting citizen scientists to figure out how solar radiation affects the ionosphere. Because the level of charged particles changes from day to night based on the amount of sunlight, radio signals are affected by the time of day, too. The eclipse acts as a snapshot of nighttime that lets scientists understand exactly how that happens. In this experiment, volunteers led by George Mason University will use radio receivers to listen to signals from two locations, and see how they change during the eclipse.
  • Testing a new technique to monitor the ionosphere. Morris Cohen and a team from Georgia Tech is going to try out a mostly unused radio band at 300 kHz to see if it can be used to monitor the ionosphere's D-region, an area that's essential for long-range communications but too high to reach with balloons and below the orbits of satellites. The eclipse should be the perfect time to test out the new technique.

The Earth And The Sun And The Moon, Oh My!

Sometimes, it's fun to study eclipses for eclipses' sake. At this point, we know a good deal about them, but they're still rare enough to retain some mystery. Plus, every new eclipse is an opportunity to use the latest imaging technology and capture ever-sharper pictures. This time around, scientists are creating some truly Instagram-worthy shots.

  • Snapping a pic of the Earth in shadow. Right at this very moment, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is circling the moon, mapping its surface and making discoveries about what it's made of. When the eclipse begins, the orbiter will whip around to capture four images of the Earth over a period of about two hours. That should result in a stunning picture of the moon's shadow passing over our planet's surface.
  • Creating a massive stop-motion animation of the sun's corona. A team of researchers from UC Berkeley have trained 1,000 volunteers to take "scientifically valid images" of the eclipse, which they plan to combine with images donated by the general public to stitch together a movie showing the sun's corona during totality. It'll help scientists better understand the way plasma waves behave, and give regular people a very cool piece of eye candy. Win-win.
  • Watching animals freak out. With the help of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Dr. Rod Mills and Dr. Don Sudbrink from Austin Peay State University plan to watch what animals do when their worlds suddenly turn dark, according to Astronomy Magazine. Specifically, Mills will observe cows and Sudbrink will watch crickets to see how each react to the rapid change in lighting.

Want to learn more about the eclipse? See our other articles here. And to hear an astronomer give even more insights into the eclipse, check out our special podcast episode here or click below to stream.

NASA Jets Chase The Total Solar Eclipse

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A Research Scientist Explains a Total Solar Eclipse

Written By
Curiosity Staff
August 3, 2017
Partner Story
Created with Rocket Mortgage

This article was created in partnership with Rocket Mortgage