What do scientists hope to learn from the total solar eclipse in the US?

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A total solar eclipse will be visible across the United States in April 2024 – this was a view of the 2017 eclipse in Oregon.


A total solar eclipse will be visible across the United States in April 2024 – this was a view of the 2017 eclipse in Oregon.

When a rare total solar eclipse sweeps across North America on April 8, scientists will be able to gather invaluable data on everything from the sun’s atmosphere to strange animal behavior and even the possible effects on people.

It comes with the sun near the peak of its 11-year solar cycle, setting the stage for a breathtaking display: the corona will shine spectacularly from the moon’s silhouette along the path of totality, a corridor that stretches from Mexico to Canada through the United States. .

Total solar eclipses offer “tremendous scientific opportunities,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said at a press conference this week about the celestial event.

The US space agency is one of the institutions ready for the eclipse, with plans to launch so-called “sounding rockets” to study the effects on Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Here’s a look at what researchers hope to learn from the upcoming eclipse:

The atmosphere of the sun

When the moon passes directly in front of the sun and blocks it, the elusive outer edge of the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, will be visible “in a very special way,” Melroy said Tuesday.

“There are things going on with the corona that we don’t fully understand,” she said.

The heat within the corona intensifies with distance from the sun’s surface—a counterintuitive phenomenon that scientists struggle to fully understand or explain.

Solar flares, a sudden burst of energy that releases radiation into space, occur in the corona, as do solar flares, large formations of plasma that erupt from the sun’s surface.

During an eclipse, the lower part of the corona — where most of this activity occurs — is clearer than when specialized instruments are used to block out the central part of the sun, providing a golden opportunity for study, said Shannon Schmoll, director. of the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University.

Researchers are especially excited that the sun is nearing the peak of its 11-year cycle.

“The chance that we’re going to see something amazing is very high,” Melroy said.

the Earth’s atmosphere

The total eclipse will also give scientists a chance to study changes in a part of Earth’s upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere, important because it affects radio waves used for communication and navigation.

“Disruptions in this layer can cause problems with GPS and communications,” said Kelly Korreck, the eclipse program manager at NASA headquarters.

The ionosphere, which is where Earth’s atmosphere meets space, is affected by the sun, which electrically charges particles there during the day.

NASA’s three sounding rockets will be launched before, during and just after the eclipse from Virginia to measure these changes.

The large decline in sunlight provoked by the eclipse—faster and more localized than a simple twilight—should allow researchers to learn more about how light affects the ionosphere so they can better predict well possible problematic interruptions.

Animal behavior

Surprising animal behavior has been observed during eclipses: Giraffes have been seen galloping, while turkeys and crickets may start singing and chirping.

Beyond the decline in sunlight, temperatures and wind—conditions animals are sensitive to—can also drop significantly during an eclipse.

Andrew Farnsworth, an ornithology researcher at Cornell University in New York state, studies how eclipses affect birds, using weather surveillance radar to detect birds in flight.

During the last total solar eclipse visible from the United States in August 2017, scientists noticed a “decrease in the number of animals flying around,” Farnsworth told reporters.

The 2017 eclipse disrupted the daily activities of insects and birds, but did not trigger the animals’ usual nocturnal behaviors, such as bird migration or the emergence of bats, the expert said.

This time, the birds may be more likely to migrate during the eclipse since it’s in April, he said.

“These kinds of patterns — they’re important to understanding the ways animals perceive their world,” Farnsworth said.

Human wonder

“Eclipses have a special power. They make people feel a kind of reverence for the beauty of our universe,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told reporters.

Researchers studied this feeling of dread in 2017, using data from nearly three million Twitter users, now called X.

Those on the so-called “whole path” tend to use the pronoun “we” (as opposed to “I”) and express concern for other people, according to Paul Piff, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine. .

“What we’re finding is that fear-inducing experiences … seem to tune people and connect us to each other, to connect us to entities that are bigger than ourselves,” Piff said.

This year, he plans to study whether the experience has any impact on political divisions in society.

Citizen scientists

About 40 citizen science projects are planned around the eclipse, from using a phone app to record temperature and cloud cover to recording ambient noise during the event.

“We encourage you to help NASA observe the sights and sounds around you,” Nelson said.

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