How will NASA photograph the eclipse? With jet planes, of course

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The images could help researchers understand why the sun’s outer atmosphere is hotter than the lower layers, as well as potentially gaining a better understanding of what Mercury might be made of.

The first full solar eclipse to come to the U.S. in 100 years will only last in totality for about two minutes — unless of course you are a NASA scientist with a pair of jet planes. During the Aug. 21 eclipseNASA is aiming to photograph the most detailed images of the sun yet by extending the total view time of the eclipse with a pair of telescopes mounted on two WB-57F jets. While photographers on the ground view the phenomenon with special glasses and filters, getting higher in the earth’s atmosphere will result in both clearer pictures and an extended viewing time for a NASA eclipse study.

By following the eclipse via jet, the team will extend their viewing time of the celestial phenomenon from less than two and a half minutes to over seven minutes. The scientists will shoot from twin telescopes, both located on the nose of the jets.

The team’s goal is to capture the details in the corona as the moon completely blocks the sun, leaving the outer atmosphere easily visible. The darkness created by the eclipse will also allow the researchers to study Mercury — the team plans to take the first thermal images of the planet during the eclipse from those same jets. Recording how fast the planet cools while the sun is covered could help scientists better understand Mercury’s make-up.

“These could well turn out to be the best ever observations of high frequency phenomena in the corona,” Dan Seaton, co-investigator of the project and researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado, said. “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.”

NASA says the images could help researchers understand why the sun is so hot. While the temperatures in the corona reach the millions, lower layers such as the photosphere top out in the thousands. Gathering data from the corona during the eclipse could help the team better understand why the inner layers of the sun’s atmosphere are actually cooler than the outer layers. The images could help prove — or disprove — a theory that nano-flares, which scientists have not yet seen, accounts for the temperature differences.

The telescopic camera will be shooting high resolution images at 30 fps. By taking multiple images over time, scientists expect they could identify potential nanoflares by comparing the shots to look for motion. The images will be taken with the traditional visible light camera, while the images of Mercury will be shot in infrared to create a temperature map of the planet.

The project is just one of 11 different tasks NASA is leading during the eclipse.