The NASA jets that’ll fly in complete DARKNESS to study the solar eclipse in mission that could lead to scientific breakthroughs

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Written By Maya Cantina
  • Two of NASA’s WB-57 jet planes raced beneath path of solar eclipse at 460 mph
  • WB-57s recorded mid-range infrared from the sun’s corona, normally hard to see 
  • WB-57s also hunted for long-theorized ‘vulcanoid’ asteroids hidden in solar dust
  • READ MORE: How to tell if YOUR eclipse glasses are safe as fakes flood Amazon

As Monday’s eclipse moved from Mexico, up into the US above Texas, and onward toward Maine and then Canada, two specialized NASA jets were hot on its trail.

Four scientists aboard two of NASA’s three WB-57 research jets cruised at 460 miles-per-hour in the stratosphere collecting data about the sun’s corona — the celestial body’s upper atmosphere, unusually visible as a halo during Monday’s event. 

The high altitude WB-57s chased the eclipse from an altitude of 50,000 feet above sea level, recording data on how the sun impacts our ionosphere, how the sun’s own atmosphere works, and incredibly hunting for long-theorized ‘vulcanoid’ asteroids.

The asteroids are believed to orbit between the Sun and Mercury, but drowned out of astronomical observations by the sun’s persistent blast of cosmic radiation.

As Monday’s eclipse moved from Mexico, up into the US above Texas, and onward toward Maine and then Canada, two specialized NASA jets were hot on its trail

The high altitude WB-57s chased the eclipse from an altitude of 50,000 feet above sea level, recording data on the how the sun impacts our ionosphere, how the sun's own atmosphere works, but also hunting for long-theorized 'vulcanoid' asteroids hidden in a ring of solar dust

The asteroids are believed to orbit between the Sun and Mercury, drowned out of typical astronomical observations by the sun's persistent blast of illuminating cosmic rays

The high altitude WB-57s chased the eclipse from an altitude of 50,000 feet above sea level, recording data on the how the sun impacts our ionosphere, how the sun’s own atmosphere works, while also hunting for long-theorized ‘vulcanoid’ asteroids hidden in a ring of solar dust

The mid-wave infrared recorded from the WB-57s cannot be measured from the ground, because so much of it is absorbed by gases and other particles in the atmosphere. Pictured, the moon as it began to eclipse the sun on Monday April 8, 2024 above Fort Worth, Texas

The mid-wave infrared recorded from the WB-57s cannot be measured from the ground, because so much of it is absorbed by gases and other particles in the atmosphere. Pictured, the moon as it began to eclipse the sun on Monday April 8, 2024 above Fort Worth, Texas

An onboard camera that takes-in visible and infrared light at high resolution and high speed served as the key instrument for the flight’s ‘vulcanoid’ asteroid hunt, which sought them out while studying a ring of dust around the sun. 

The ‘Chasing the Eclipse’ project is led by physicist Amir Caspi, who studies high-energy solar physics at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, building off of a similar jet flight during the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse.

‘The shadow moves at about 1,500 mph at its slowest and the airplanes are moving at only about 460 mph,’ as Caspi told ABC affiliate WQAD, ‘so the shadow will overtake them pretty quickly.’ 

NASA’s jets were launched off the coast of Mexico, flying northeast in an effort to anticipate the eclipse as it made its way toward the border into Texas.

‘As long as you know all of those things,’ Caspi said, ‘you can put the math together and you can plan for trying to be at a particular place.’

Above, a view of the March 8, 2016 eclipse taken from 35,000 feet by Mike Kentrianakis of the American Astronomical Society while onboard Alaska Airlines Flight #870. NASA's high altitude WB-57s chased the eclipse from an altitude of 50,000 feet above sea level Monday

Above, a view of the March 8, 2016 eclipse taken from 35,000 feet by Mike Kentrianakis of the American Astronomical Society while onboard Alaska Airlines Flight #870. NASA’s high altitude WB-57s chased the eclipse from an altitude of 50,000 feet above sea level Monday

There are four cameras total on the nose of both WB-57 jets, each tailored to pick up specific ‘colors’ or wavelengths from the electromagnetic spectrum. 

Some of that electromagnetic frequency (EMF) spectra, including mid-wave infrared, cannot be measured from the ground, because so much of it is absorbed by gases and other particles in the atmosphere.

Mid-infrared images of the corona taken during the August 2017 eclipse have been used by NASA-affiliated researchers to more precisely measure the diameter of sun, which is still not precisely known, as well as to try to solve the mystery of why the corona is hotter than the sun’s surface.

‘This light is our best probe short of sticking a thermometer in the corona,’ according to University of Hawaii astronomer Shadia Habbal, who leads of one of the WB-57 eclipse experiments.

Jet flight missions of this kind offer the ‘best-ever observations of high frequency phenomena in the corona,’ astrophysicist Dan Seaton, a co-investigator of the NASA project, noted in a 2017 NASA statement ahead of the team’s ‘Chasing the Eclipse I’ over six years ago. 

NASA's jets launched off the coast of Mexico trying to anticipate the eclipse as it made its way toward Texas. 'The shadow moves at about 1,500 mph at its slowest and the airplanes are moving at only about 460 mph,' one expert said, 'the shadow will overtake them pretty quickly'

NASA’s jets launched off the coast of Mexico trying to anticipate the eclipse as it made its way toward Texas. ‘The shadow moves at about 1,500 mph at its slowest and the airplanes are moving at only about 460 mph,’ one expert said, ‘the shadow will overtake them pretty quickly’

There are four cameras on the nose of both WB-57 jets, each tailored to pick up specific colors or wavelengths from the electromagnetic spectrum. Some of that spectra, including mid-wave infrared, cannot be measured from the ground, because it is absorbed by the atmosphere

There are four cameras on the nose of both WB-57 jets, each tailored to pick up specific colors or wavelengths from the electromagnetic spectrum. Some of that spectra, including mid-wave infrared, cannot be measured from the ground, because it is absorbed by the atmosphere

'By extending the duration of totality, we're increasing the duration of how much data we can acquire,' one leading astronomer on the mission, Shadia Habbal, said. On the jets, her team has spectrometers measuring both the temperature and chemical composition of the corona

‘By extending the duration of totality, we’re increasing the duration of how much data we can acquire,’ one leading astronomer on the mission, Shadia Habbal, said. On the jets, her team has spectrometers measuring both the temperature and chemical composition of the corona

‘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,’ Seaton, a solar researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said at that time.

Monday’s sequel to that 2017 eclipse chase allowed the two NASA jets to witness the complete overlapping, or ‘totality’ of the eclipse for 25 percent longer than the longest possible ground observation today, which was a 4-minute, 27-second ‘totality’ event visible from Torreón in Mexico. 

The WB-57 teams got to see the eclipse in its totality for an estimated 6 minutes and 22 seconds, and with a perfect view above all cloud cover.

‘By extending the duration of totality,’ Habbal said, ‘we’re increasing the duration of how much data we can acquire.’

This included longer durations of the turbulent solar activity erupting from the sun, including coronal mass ejections, which Habbal’s team measured via spectrometers aboard the jets.

The spectrometers recorded specific wavelengths of EMF spectra that will aid in measuring both the temperature and chemical composition of the corona. 

NASA sensor equipment operator Mallory Yates, who was onboard one of the WB-57 jets, operated the US space agency’s equipment via a tiny keyboard and small mouse while her co-pilot tailed the eclipse during those six minutes of  darkness.

‘I’m going to have one of the best seats in the house,’ Yates told BBC News. ‘So, I’m excited to see the eclipse and hopefully steal a few glances up as we fly the mission.’

THE MARTIN B-57 CANBERRA 

A US Air Force Martin WB-57F Canberra in flight in 1965.

A US Air Force Martin WB-57F Canberra in flight in 1965.

The Martin B-57 Canberra is an American-built, twinjet tactical bomber and reconnaissance aircraft that entered service with the United States Air Force (USAF) in 1953, and is a licensed version of the British English Electric developed by English Electric during the mid-to-late 1940s in response to a 1944 Air Ministry requirement for a successor to the wartime de Havilland Mosquito fast-bomber.

The B-57 Canberra holds the distinction of being the first jet bomber in U.S. service to drop bombs during combat, and was used extensively during the Vietnam War in a bombing capacity.

Several versions were produced, and served as high-altitude aerial reconnaissance platforms, and electronic warfare aircraft. 

The B-57 Canberra was also sold to export customers abroad, further combat use was seen by the Pakistani Air Force during the Second Kashmir War and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.

The NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas is the home of the NASA WB-57 High Altitude Research Program. Three fully operational WB-57 aircraft are based near JSC at Ellington Field. 

The aircraft have been flying research missions since the early 1960’s, and continue to be an asset to the scientific community with professional, reliable, customer-oriented service designed to meet all scientific objectives. 

 

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