Scientists Plan to Use Total Solar Eclipse to Study Sun and Mercury

Scientists Plan to Use Total Solar Eclipse to Study Sun and Mercury

Lea la versión en Español

May 13, 2019

Scientists expect the solar eclipse this summer, July 2, 2019, to be an opportunity to study the solar corona and the surface of Mercury. The researchers will use airborne telescopes situated on a research aircraft. The outer atmosphere of the Sun and the variation of temperatures on the surface of Mercury will be especially visible during the event.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

A total solar eclipse allows scientists to study the atmosphere above the visible surface of the Sun. During the total eclipse, the Moon darkens the sky by blocking the glare from the Sun, so the emissions from the Sun do not overpower the light coming from the corona.

Hot Corona
According to researchers at the SwRI’s Boulder, observing the motion in the corona would help the scientists to understand why it is so hot. The corona is hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface of the Sun below it, with its temperature reaching millions of degrees Celsius. Moreover, researching the corona is important also because it plays a major role in electromagnetic storms on Earth. Those storms are strong enough to cause damage to satellites, GPS and other communication signals, and also power grid blackouts.
At this point, there is no clear understanding of the reason behind the extremely hot temperature of the corona. One possible answer is that the energy carried by the Sun’s magnetic field reaches the corona and becomes converted into heat. Another reason for the heat might be the energy released by nanojets or nanoflares, explosions that are too small to be visible individually. Scientists can use the video of the corona to record the motions that can help them understand its high temperatures.  

Magnetic Research
The researchers are also looking to find out why the magnetic structures that belong to the corona are stable and smooth. Even though the motion of the surface constantly disturbs those structures, the corona seems to be well-organized. Observing the corona from high altitude has many advantages compared to ground observations.

Being above the weather allows scientists to achieve better image quality because of perfect observing conditions. Moreover, using a mobile platform can extend the phase of totality for the observers from high altitude, from 2 min 30 seconds up to 7 whole minutes.

WB-57 pralform

These observations are related to the airborne platform WB-57. The astronomers at the Southern Research in Alabama created the Airborne Imaging and Recording Systems and have been cooperating with the scientists to upgrade their telescopes with improved data recorders and solar filters.

The researchers working with the platform WB-57 say that it provides images of higher speed and higher quality compared to the previous tools for space observations. While the platform was used for the first time in 2017, it presents a large potential for observation of total solar eclipse in 2019 and the future.

Studying Mercury
Apart from looking for the answers to the questions about the Sun, a total solar eclipse is a great opportunity for the scientists to study Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun. Bright daytime sky usually makes it difficult to observe Mercury, and at twilight, it is hidden by the distorted atmosphere near the horizon.

Studying Mercury during the total eclipse allows the scientists to take measures in near darkness, in the infrared, and with little obstruction by the atmosphere. The infrared will help in calculating surface temperatures over the night side of the planet. This way, the changes in temperature on Mercury’s surface could explain details about the thermophysical qualities of the planet’s soil.

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