As America gears up to witness the first total coast-to-coast solar eclipse since 1918, Nasa has found the best seat in the house to witness the rare phenomenon. The agency, on August 21, plans to race two retrofitted WB-57F warplanes to chase the dark shadow of the Moon at an altitude of 40,000-50,000ft — a move that will help them study the Sun, particularly its outer atmosphere.
Taking off from Johnson Space Center, the two WB-57F jets, helmed by a couple of pilots and technicians, will cruise on either edge of the shadow's 70-mile girth at 400mph. This will effectively stretch the totality to three and a half minutes for each jet, compared to just two on the ground. These planes first flew in 1953, but now, they've been upgraded with advanced avionics as well as a nosecone telescope that will capture the clearest photos and videos of the eclipse, the Sun's outer atmosphere (Corona), and planet Mercury on the dark skies.
"These could well turn out to be the best ever observations of high-frequency phenomena in the corona," says Dan Seaton, co-investigator of the project and researcher at the Nasa funded University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. "Extending the observing time and going to very high altitude might allow us to see a few events or track waves that would be essentially invisible in just two minutes of observations from the ground."
The total eclipse, cruising across America at speeds of over 2400mph, will provide Nasa a rare opportunity to study the Sun's faint Corona, which is strangely millions of degrees hotter than its lower surface. During the unique astronomical phenomenon, the moon will completely cover the Sun, allowing scientists a short window to capture detailed corona images to study the cause of this inversion.
"Images of the Sun will primarily be captured at visible light wavelengths, specifically the green light given off by highly ionized iron, superheated by the corona. This light is best for showing the fine structures in the Sun's outer atmosphere," Nasa noted,
In addition to the Sun, the agency will also capture infrared images of Mercury in order to map the surprising fall in its temperature from 800F during the day to a few hundred degrees below zero at night. These images — to be taken a half-hour before and after the totality — will allow scientists to study the rocky planet's soil and its density in detail.