NASA selects 5 experiments for 2024 total solar eclipse

On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will occur, causing a temporary darkness as the Moon obstructs the Sun’s light over a portion of North America. This event presents a remarkable opportunity for scientists to investigate the Sun, Earth, and their interactions.

To maximize this chance, NASA has selected five interdisciplinary science projects to receive funding for the 2024 eclipse. Led by researchers from various academic institutions, these projects will employ different instruments, including cameras on high-altitude research planes and ham radios, to study the Sun and its impact on Earth. Two of the projects also invite citizen scientists to participate.

Peg Luce, the acting director of the Heliophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, expressed enthusiasm about the selection of these new projects, stating, “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 been used by scientists as a means to make significant discoveries. Kelly Korreck, a program scientist at NASA Headquarters, explained, “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.”

One project aims to capture images of the eclipse from an altitude of 50,000 feet using NASA’s WB-57 high-altitude research aircraft. By observing the eclipse from above most of Earth’s atmosphere, the team hopes to reveal new details about structures in the corona. They also plan to investigate a dust ring around the Sun and search for asteroids near its orbit. This project, led by Amir Caspi at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, builds upon Caspi’s successful 2017 project, utilizing a new camera suite.

Another project utilizing NASA’s WB-57s will employ cameras and spectrometers to study the temperature and chemical composition of the corona and coronal mass ejections. By flying along the eclipse path, the team intends to extend their time in the Moon’s shadow by over two minutes. They hope these observations will provide fresh insights into the corona’s structures and the solar wind’s sources, which consist of a continuous stream of particles emitted by the Sun. Shadia Habbal from the University of Hawaii leads this project.

During both the 2024 total solar eclipse and an annular solar eclipse in October, Nathaniel Frissell from The University of Scranton has invited amateur radio operators to participate in “Solar Eclipse QSO Parties.” The operators will attempt to make radio contacts with as many other operators as possible in different locations. This endeavor aims to observe how the ionosphere, an electrically charged region in our upper atmosphere that aids long-distance radio communications, changes during the eclipses. Previous experiments have demonstrated that solar eclipses can significantly impact the electron content of the ionosphere, affecting the behavior of radio waves.

The darkest part of the eclipse’s shadow will pass over several locations equipped with SuperDARN radars, which monitor space weather conditions in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere. This presents a unique opportunity to study the effects of solar radiation on these upper atmospheric layers. A project led by Bharat Kunduri from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University will utilize three SuperDARN radars to examine the ionosphere during the eclipse. Kunduri’s team will compare their measurements with predictions from computer models to gain insights into how the ionosphere reacts to a solar eclipse.

Finally, during the upcoming eclipses, Thangasamy Velusamy from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with educators from the Lewis Center for Education Research in

Southern California and participants in the center’s Solar Patrol citizen science program, will observe solar “active regions.” These regions, which develop over sunspots and exhibit magnetic complexity, will be observed as the Moon passes over them. By analyzing the different portions of the active regions that are blocked by the Moon at different times, scientists can discern distinct light signals. The team will employ the 34-meter Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) to measure subtle changes in radio emissions from active regions during both the 2023 annular and 2024 total eclipses. This technique, first used during the May 2012 annular eclipses, provided insights into the Sun that were otherwise undetectable by the telescope.

By capitalizing on the 2024 solar eclipse, these projects funded by NASA will contribute to our understanding of the Sun, Earth, and their intricate relationship. The unique nature of this celestial event holds great promise for groundbreaking scientific discoveries.


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