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Total solar eclipse: a 4-minute window into the secrets of the universe

Total solar eclipse: a 4-minute window into the secrets of the universe
  • Written by Georgina Ranard
  • Science Reporter

Image source, Aberystwyth University

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Scientists in the United Kingdom and the United States are working to monitor the eclipse

Eclipse fever is on the rise. Millions in North America are hoping for about four minutes of complete darkness as the moon blocks sunlight on Monday.

For some, those precious minutes will be an opportunity to perform often impossible scientific experiments – a chance to uncover the secrets of our universe.

Researchers will launch rockets into the path of the eclipse, stand in zoos to observe animals, send radio signals across the world, and peer into space with huge cameras.

You don't need to be a scientist to participate.

But things can still go wrong. A solar flare or even some modest cloudiness could throw a wrench in those plans.

Possibilities of mating turtles or snoozing gorillas

Professor Adam Hartston Rose of North Carolina State University will spend Monday at the zoo in Fort Worth, Texas.

He will look for strange behaviors in animals, from gorillas to giraffes to Galapagos tortoises. Spoiler: During the 2017 eclipse, the turtles suddenly started mating.

Many animals seem to have anxious responses to sudden darkness.

“The flamingos did something beautiful last time,” he says. “As the eclipse was forming, the adults gathered the chicks into the middle of the flock and looked up at the sky as if worried about an aerial predator descending.”

Image source, Getty Images

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Scientists observed Galapagos tortoises mating at the height of the totality in 2017

Meanwhile, the gorillas moved to their sleeping area and began a pre-sleep routine, as their circadian rhythms were disrupted.

A night bird named Tawny Frogmouth wakes up from where it usually disguises itself as a rotting tree trunk. He started looking for food, then suddenly returned to disguise when the sun appeared again.

The team will obtain results almost immediately and will publish its results in the days following the eclipse.

A glimpse of the noisy plasma

When darkness falls over parts of North America, one part of the Sun that people have been trying to study for centuries will be visible – the atmosphere, or corona.

This mysterious part of the Sun consists of magnetized plasma and has a temperature of more than a million degrees Celsius.

Image source, S. R. Habbal and M. Druckmüller

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A total solar eclipse provides a rare opportunity to study the sun's corona

The Sun's incredible brightness would normally make the corona impossible to see, but scientists in Dallas, Texas, on Monday will be able to point instruments at it and take pictures.

Scientists from Aberystwyth University in Wales and NASA hope to gain insight into the solar wind, the plasma that is released from the surface of the sun. Another mystery is why the corona appears hotter than the surface of the Sun, despite being at its edge.

They may also see what's called a coronal mass ejection, when huge clouds of plasma are shot out of the atmosphere into space. Ejections can cause problems for the satellites we use on Earth.

A lot of money, time and logistics went into that four-minute period, says Hugh Morgan, professor of physics at Aberystwyth University.

“It's a real feeling of euphoria when things go well, because you've prepared for a long time,” he says. “But if there's a cloud, it's a disaster. There's nothing we can do about it.”

Radio listening party

The sun's activity can disrupt almost all of our communications, including the humble longwave radio.

Energy from the Sun charges a region in the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere, which helps send radio broadcasts around the planet. But when the Moon blocks the Sun, the ionosphere is affected.

Image source, Nathaniel Frissell

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Thomas Pisano (standing at the back) will join the radio listening contest on Monday

The findings could help scientists better understand radio communications used by emergency workers, aircraft and ships, as well as the Global Positioning System (GPS), according to Nathaniel Frissell of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, who is moderating the ceremony.

Thomas Pisano, an electrical engineering student with Dr. Frissell, plans to compete. Sitting at desks equipped with radio equipment, he would send out signals and try to contact as many operators around the world as possible.

“There is a strong sense of community,” he says. “We're all really excited to get this data.”

Most of the communications are formal – station name and location – but each one is signed with the number “73”, a symbol of best wishes.

“It's our radio way of saying goodbye and taking care,” he says.

While the eclipse will be barely visible in the UK, radio operators across the country will continue to listen to messages sent from the other side of the Atlantic. Radio operator Gwen Griffiths plans to send and receive longwave signals across the ocean to measure how far they travel.

Planes fly to chase the eclipse

NASA will fly WB-57 aircraft along the eclipse's path to capture images from 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above Earth.

Flying above the clouds means there's no chance of missing the eclipse. Aircraft cameras must capture sharper images because they will pick up wavelengths that don't normally reach the ground.

In addition to observing new details in the corona, NASA may be able to study a dust ring around the sun and search for asteroids that may be orbiting nearby.

There is one instrument on board the planes called a spectrometer that will help them learn more about bursts of solar volatiles from the sun.

The planes will also buy time in the eclipse.

Traveling at 460 mph (740 km/h), they will spend more than 6 minutes and 22 seconds in the moon's shadow — nearly two minutes more than humble humans on Earth would get just four and a half minutes on Earth, if we're lucky. .

More about solar eclipses

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