NASA to fly rockets into Moon’s shadow during Saturday’s eclipse for study

NASA is set to launch a trio of rockets during tomorrow’s “Ring of Fire” solar eclipse in order to study how the temporary drop in sunlight affects part of the upper atmosphere.

Dubbed “Atmospheric Perturbations around the Eclipse Path” (APEP) the mission is led by physicist Professor Aroh Barjatya of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

The ionosphere — which Barjatya and his colleagues are studying — is a layer of the atmosphere above around 50 miles where the air “becomes electric”.

Here, during the daytime, the ultraviolet component of sunlight pries electrons away from atoms to form a high-flying “sea” of ions and electrons.

At night, however, many ions and electrons recombine into neutral atoms, before being ionized by the sun’s radiation again when the sun next comes up.

During an eclipse, however, the ionizing sunlight is blocked and then resumes shortly after — a phenomenon which causes the local temperature and density in the ionosphere to drop and then rise, sending waves rippling out across this layer of the atmosphere.

It is this process that NASA is looking to study tomorrow morning.

Barjatya explained: “If you think of the ionosphere as a pond with some gentle ripples on it, the eclipse is like a motorboat that suddenly rips through the water.

“It creates a wake immediately underneath and behind it, and then the water level momentarily goes up as it rushes back in.”

In fact, during the last solar eclipse over the US — which occurred in August 2017 — atmospheric fluctuations were detected by instruments many hundreds of miles outside of the path of the eclipse.

These changes also had a noticeable effect on the operation of space-based infrastructure like communications satellites and GPS.

Barjatya added: “All satellite communications go through the ionosphere before they reach Earth. As we become more dependent on space-based assets, we need to understand and model all perturbations in the ionosphere.”

The acronym for the mission — APEP — is a nod to the serpent deity in ancient Egyptian mythology, who is said to have pursued his enemy the Sun god Ra, occasionally eating him and causing an eclipse.

APEP’s three sounding rockets will be launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 35-minute intervals, centered around the local peak of the eclipse.

The probes will be flying just outside of the “path of annularity” — the area directly in the Moon’s shadow where tomorrow’s “Ring of Fire” eclipse will be visible.

Each rocket will be deploying four small scientific instruments, which will measure the changes in the ionosphere’s density, temperature and both electric and magnetic fields.

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The advantage of using sounding rockets, beyond their high fidelity, is that the can also measure changes at different altitudes, as the suborbital rockers first fire up through the atmosphere, and then later fall back down to Earth.

In fact, the APEP rockets will be taking readings between 45 and 200 miles above the Earth’s surface along their flight path.

Barjatya said: “Rockets are the best way to look at the vertical dimension at the smallest possible spatial scales,

“They can wait to launch at just the right moment and explore the lower altitudes where satellites can’t fly.”

That said, however, tomorrow’s rocket measurements will also be supported by an assortment of ground-based observations — including recordings of ionospheric density, wind measurements and radar scans — and those taken via high-altitude balloons.

Together, all the data will be fed into ionosphere models being developed by scientists at both Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tomorrow’s launches will not be the only times that the three APEP rockets get a data-gathering outing.

Following the solar eclipse this weekend, the scientists will recover the rockets, which will go on to be re-launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on April 8, 2024.

This date will see a total solar eclipse cross the US, from Texas in the south up to Maine in the northeast.

The second set of launches will occur further from the eclipse path than this weekend’s experiments, the research noted.

However, this will afford the APEP team the opportunity to measure just how widespread the effects of an eclipse are.

After April’s event, the next total solar eclipse to grace the skies over the US will not occur for another decade. The next annular eclipse, meanwhile, will not be until 2046.

Barjatya quipped: “We have to make hay while the Sun shines — or I suppose, for eclipse science, while it doesn’t!

“In all seriousness though, this data set will reveal the widespread effects that eclipses have on the ionosphere at the smallest spatial scales.”

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