In a first of its kind mission, scientists will take flight in NASA WB-57F Jets and case the August 21 solar eclipse across the sky to capture what are expected to be the clearest images ever taken of the Sun's outer atmosphere.
Amir Caspi of the Southwest Research Institute and his team will capture the observations from twin telescopes mounted on the noses of the planes in hopes of grabbing images of the Sun's corona and the first-ever thermal images of Mercury, revealing how temperature varies across the planet's surface.
"These could well turn out to be the best ever observations of high-frequency phenomena in the corona,” Dan Seaton, co-investigator of the project and researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. “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.”
For those of us on the ground, the solar eclipse on August 21 will last just two minutes. For the scientists in the WB-57F's, it will last some seven minutes.
According to NASA, aircraft will launch from Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and will observe the total eclipse for about three and a half minutes each as they fly over Missouri, Illinois, and Tennessee.
The planes will be cruising altitudes of 50,000 feet where the sky is 20-30 times darker than as seen from the ground. This environment is expected to provide great image quality as it will allow the telescopes to avoid looking through the majority of the earth's atmosphere.
The observations of Mercury will be taken a half-hour before and after totality when the sky is still relatively dark. These will be the first attempt to map the variation of temperature across the surface of the planet.
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