NASA’s investment in scientific exploration continues as it funds five interdisciplinary projects to take advantage of the upcoming total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. These projects, led by researchers from diverse academic institutions, will employ a range of cutting-edge tools such as high-altitude research plane cameras and ham radios. With these endeavors, NASA aims to unravel mysteries surrounding the Sun’s corona, radio wave propagation during solar eclipses, the impact of solar radiation on Earth’s upper atmosphere, and the behavior of solar “hot spots.” These studies hold the promise of deepening our comprehension of the Sun and its influence on our planet.
Set to traverse a portion of North America, the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, will plunge the region into momentary darkness as the Moon obscures the Sun’s light. Beyond the awe-inspiring spectacle it presents to millions of observers, this celestial event grants scientists a remarkable opportunity to delve into the intricate dynamics between the Sun, Earth, and their interactions.
To maximize the scientific potential of this event, NASA has allocated funding for five interdisciplinary projects that will focus on studying the Sun and its impact on Earth. These projects, led by researchers from various academic institutions, will leverage an array of instruments, including cameras mounted on high-altitude research planes and ham radios. Furthermore, two of the projects actively encourage participation from citizen scientists, facilitating broader engagement with the scientific community.
Expressing her enthusiasm, Peg Luce, acting director of the Heliophysics Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, stated, “Seven years after the last American total solar eclipse, we’re thrilled to announce the selection of five new projects that will study the 2024 eclipse. We’re excited to see what these new experiments will uncover about our Sun and its impact on Earth.”
Solar eclipses have long served as catalysts for scientific breakthroughs. As Kelly Korreck, program scientist at NASA Headquarters, notes, “They have helped us make the first detection of helium, have given us evidence for the theory of general relativity, and allowed us to better understand the Sun’s influence on Earth’s upper atmosphere.”
Chasing the Eclipse with NASA’s High-Altitude Research Planes:
Making use of NASA’s WB-57 high-altitude research aircraft, this project aims to capture eclipse images from an elevation of 50,000 feet above Earth’s surface. By acquiring images above most of Earth’s atmosphere, the team anticipates revealing new details about the middle and lower corona structures. The observations, facilitated by an infrared and visible light high-resolution camera, could also contribute to the study of a dust ring surrounding the Sun and the search for Sun-proximate asteroids. This project, led by Amir Caspi at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, builds upon the success of Caspi’s 2017 endeavor, incorporating an upgraded camera suite.
Airborne Imaging and Spectroscopic Observations of the Corona:
NASA’s WB-57s will carry cameras and spectrometers to examine the temperature, chemical composition, and coronal mass ejections within the corona. By flying along the eclipse’s path, the team aims to extend their duration within the Moon’s shadow by over two minutes. These observations aspire to shed light on corona structures and the sources of solar wind, the continuous stream of particles emanating from the Sun. The project is led by Shadia Habbal from the University of Hawaii.
“Listening Party” for Amateur Radio Operators:
During solar eclipses, the Moon’s obstruction of the Sun leads to significant changes in the ionosphere—an ionized region in the upper atmosphere crucial for long-distance radio communication. Nathaniel Frissell of The University of Scranton invites amateur radio operators to participate in “Solar Eclipse QSO Parties.” Operators will engage in radio contacts to assess the impact of the eclipse on signal strength and propagation. Previous experiments have demonstrated the profound influence of solar eclipses on electron content in the ionosphere and subsequent radio wave behavior.
Solar Radiation’s Effects on Earth’s Upper Atmosphere Layers:
The shadow cast by the eclipse will pass over locations equipped with SuperDARN radars, instruments dedicated to monitoring space weather in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Researchers, led by Bharat Kunduri from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, will employ three SuperDARN radars to investigate the ionosphere during the eclipse. By comparing these measurements with computer models, the team aims to gain insights into how the ionosphere reacts to solar eclipses.
Bringing the Sun’s Magnetic “Hot Spots” Into Sharper Focus:
Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in collaboration with the Lewis Center for Education Research and participants in the Solar Patrol citizen science program, will observe solar “active regions” as the Moon traverses them. This gradual passage will allow the team to discern different portions of the active region, enabling the measurement of subtle changes in radio emissions using the 34-meter Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT). This technique, first employed during the 2012 annular eclipses, promises to unveil details about the Sun that would otherwise remain hidden.
By undertaking these innovative experiments, NASA and its collaborators strive to unlock new knowledge about the Sun, unravel its secrets, and deepen our understanding of its profound impact on Earth.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about solar eclipse experiments
What is the purpose of NASA’s funding for the 2024 total solar eclipse?
NASA’s funding for the 2024 total solar eclipse aims to support five interdisciplinary projects focused on scientific exploration. These projects will investigate various aspects, including the Sun’s corona, radio wave propagation, solar radiation’s impact on Earth’s upper atmosphere, and solar “hot spots.” The goal is to enhance our understanding of the Sun and its influence on our planet.
How will the projects utilize different instruments?
The projects will utilize a range of advanced instruments. These include cameras mounted on high-altitude research planes, spectrometers for studying light composition, ham radios for studying changes in the ionosphere during the eclipse, and SuperDARN radars to monitor the ionosphere’s behavior. These instruments enable researchers to capture valuable data and make insightful observations during the eclipse.
How can citizen scientists participate in these projects?
Two of the projects actively encourage participation from citizen scientists. During the eclipses, amateur radio operators are invited to engage in “Solar Eclipse QSO Parties,” making radio contacts and recording signal strength and propagation. Their observations contribute to understanding the effects of the eclipse on the ionosphere and radio wave travel. Additionally, participants in the Solar Patrol citizen science program will help observe solar “hot spots” using the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) to measure changes in radio emissions.
What are the expected outcomes of these experiments?
Through these experiments, scientists hope to uncover new insights about the Sun and its impact on Earth. The projects aim to reveal new details about the Sun’s corona, study the behavior of radio waves during solar eclipses, understand the effects of solar radiation on Earth’s upper atmosphere, and gain a deeper understanding of solar “hot spots.” The data collected will contribute to advancing our knowledge of the Sun and its interactions with our planet.
How does this total solar eclipse present a unique scientific opportunity?
Total solar eclipses provide scientists with unique opportunities to study celestial phenomena. During an eclipse, the Moon perfectly aligns with the Sun, allowing scientists to observe the Sun’s corona and make significant scientific discoveries. Previous eclipses have led to the detection of helium, evidence for the theory of general relativity, and a better understanding of the Sun’s influence on Earth’s upper atmosphere. The 2024 total solar eclipse offers a fresh chance to deepen our understanding of these phenomena and expand our scientific knowledge.
More about solar eclipse experiments
- NASA’s Official Website
- NASA’s Solar Eclipse Page
- NASA’s Heliophysics Division
- Southwest Research Institute
- University of Hawaii
- The University of Scranton
- Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
- NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT)
- Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN)