High Technology Could Solve Solar Mysteries During Eclipse

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Test Flight: NASA Special Equipment Operator and SRI Communications Engineer Don Darrow gets into the back seat of a WB-57, a former bomber retrofitted for scientific exploration.
Test Flight: NASA Special Equipment Operator and SRI Communications Engineer Don Darrow gets into the back seat of a WB-57, a former bomber retrofitted for scientific exploration.

Southern Research

Millions of Americans will see Monday’s solar eclipse, but besides the delight and awe that comes with such a big, cosmic event, it could yield important new measurements and a better understanding of our solar system. Cutting-edge imaging technology from a Birmingham-based nonprofit is set to fly along the eclipse’s path on two former military planes now operated by NASA.

Window (or Shadow) of Advantage

Normally, the sun is so bright and hot it makes studying anything near it difficult. But Birmingham’s Southern Research is taking advantage of the eclipse. Don Darrow of NASA and Southern Research says even with the best heat-imaging cameras, it’s hard to get a read on Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. It’s complicated, but he says, “basically, it’s too hot to be able to get accurate measurements through infrared. So this opportunity that we have, with the moon blocking it out — we’ll actually be able to get the first temperature gradients of Mercury that have been recorded.”

Temperature maps of Mercury won’t be the only goal when Darrow and an engineer in another retooled B-57 bomber start chasing the moon’s shadow south of Saint Louis. High-resolution images and video could help scientists solve a mystery at the center of our solar system.

NASA flies three retooled B-57 bombers, now called WB-57s. Two of them will chase the moon's shadow across part of the U.S. during the August 21 eclipse.
NASA operates three WB-57s. Two of them will chase the moon’s shadow across part of the U.S. during the August 21 eclipse.
Southern Research

“The intention is to try to identify why the outer layers of the sun are so much hotter than some of the inner layers,” he says.

And there’s yet another puzzle that Southern Research’s imaging system could resolve: whether asteroids called vulcanoids near Mercury exist. Astronomers think they might, but small objects close to the sun are hard to detect.

No Pressure at All

The telescopic cameras will try to find these objects and more from almost 10 miles above the Earth.

“We have a joystick in the back, like you’d see in the cockpit of an airplane. That’s how we manually control the sensors,” he says, adding, “There’s a lot that can go wrong. And I have to be on my game in order to make sure that I can either head off anything that I see coming, or overcome anything that happens.”

The Need for Speed

Down on the ground in Birmingham, Southern Research engineering project director Johanna Lewis says the eclipse moves really fast, so they have a strategy: two planes.

“One will fly with the shadow, but the shadow moves faster than the plane moves,” she explains. “So we’ll be able to get about four minutes of data out of the first plane. The second plane will come in and pick up where it left off and collect another four minutes. And so we’ll be able to stretch that to about eight minutes worth of data.”

Johanna Lewis is Director of the Engineering Project Management Office at Southern Research in Birmingham. Her father worked for NASA, so she calls herself "a second-generation space cadet."
Johanna Lewis is director of the Engineering Project Management Office at Southern Research in Birmingham. Her father worked for NASA, so she calls herself “a second-generation space cadet.”
Dan Carsen, WBHM

That’s eight minutes of eclipse when the sun won’t overpower or damage the sensors. Lewis has faith in the mission team, too:

“NASA provides the planes, Southern Research provides the instruments that collect the data, and [Texas-based nonprofit] Southwest Research will be processing the data and doing the analysis.”

Some of those findings could be released in about a month. Darrow sees many potential benefits here.

“This mission is going to be historic for the Mercury observation, but I think we’re going to get some phenomenal images of the sun as well.”

Those images are set to be live-streamed on NASA TV. And you won’t even need special glasses or a modified B-57 bomber to see them.

"Low missions" mean below 60,000 feet. When the WB-57 goes higher, the pilot and the equipment operator have to wear special suits.
“Low missions” mean below 60,000 feet. When the plane goes higher, the pilot and the equipment operator have to wear different suits.
Southern Research