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Southwest Research Institute plans one-of-a-kind eclipse experiment

Image of the solar corona during an eclipse in Australia
Citizen CATE 2024
Image of the solar corona during an eclipse in Australia

During the upcoming solar eclipse, Amir Caspi, principal scientist at Southwest Research Institute, is heading up a unique research project using NASA high altitude aircraft and teams of ground-based citizen scientists to observe the event. TPR's Jerry Clayton spoke with Caspi about this one-of-a-kind experiment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Clayton: Your project is to observe the eclipse, and it's actually two separate simultaneous projects. Let's talk about the airborne observation part first.

Caspi: So, we are funded by NASA to fly an experiment on NASA's WB-57 jets. These are airframes from the 1950s that have been retrofitted with modern avionics, and especially telescopes in the nose cones that are outfitted with special cameras.

And these airplanes will fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet or higher. That's higher than any other commercial airliner to observe the solar eclipse, in ways that we simply can't do at any other time, or with any other kind of equipment.

Clayton: And even if it's cloudy, you'll still get your observations, right?

Caspi: Absolutely. These aircraft get above all of the clouds, and we don't have to worry about that bane of eclipse chasers everywhere.

Kimi McFadden

Clayton: One of the most interesting parts of this is called Citizen Cate. And that is the project that has volunteers. Explain to me how that works.

Caspi: Yes. The Citizen Cate 2024 project will use a distributed network of 35 teams. Community participants. Sometimes you might hear them referred to as citizen scientists. But of course, it's not limited to citizens of the United States. We welcome anybody, and we're going to be giving them telescopes and training to be able to make scientific observations of the solar eclipse.

In fact, we've already sent out the telescopes to all of our teams. They have them in their hands, and they're already practicing now. And the cool thing is that they're going to be deployed all along the eclipse path from Eagle Pass, Texas, all the way to Houlton, Maine to make observations of the solar eclipse in a kind of bucket brigade.

As the eclipse passes over one and then the other, we're going to put together all of their data into a one-hour long movie of totality.

Clayton: What are you hoping to learn with these observations?

Caspi: Both Citizen CATE 2024 and the WB-57 project are actually looking at two very related questions, and they're looking at them in two different ways. One of the questions that we've been trying to understand ever since we figured out, what the sun was made of, is why is the solar corona, the outermost atmosphere of the sun so hot?

The surface of our star is only about 10,000°F. But the corona, the outer atmosphere, is millions of degrees. That's like walking away from a campfire and having it get hotter the further you get. So that's really counterintuitive. And we're trying to understand how the energy is transported up into the corona and released there to get it that hot.

And the second question we're trying to answer is, what are the properties of the very young solar wind? So, the solar wind is this constant stream of particles coming off of the sun that goes out into interplanetary space. The Earth basically swims through the solar wind as it orbits the sun, and we don't really know exactly how it's formed and how it's accelerated away from the sun.

So, by using a total solar eclipse, we can make these observations really, really close to the solar surface to figure out how the solar wind is born and how does it form on its way out away from the sun?

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.