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Racing the Eclipse in a retrofitted bomber

Two WB-57 jets will be racing the eclipse collecting unprecedented data of the Sun's atmosphere known as the corona. (Courtesy NASA and the Southwest Research Institute)

A total solar eclipse is not that rare of an event to take place on our planet. What makes Monday's eclipse so special is that its path takes it across a large landmass, which not only provides a lot of people an opportunity to watch the eclipse, it also gives scientists a much easier attempt to research the sun.

"Scientists can bring equipment very easily," said Amir Caspi, scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. "You don't have to fly a lot of science equipment to remote parts of the world to make these observations."

This NASA-funded research mission will take place high in the sky over Missouri and Illinois. One former military bomber and another research aircraft, both WB-57 twin-engine jets, have been heavily modernized to research the sun, and they will chase the eclipse at 50,000 feet.

The nose cone of the aircraft can be removed and replaced with two cameras on a rotating camera head.

One camera will take visible light photos, while another will take infrared pictures which show the temperature of what is being photographed.

One of the goals of this project is to understand the temperature profile of the sun's atmosphere known as the corona.

"The corona is millions of degrees but the visible surface, that bright yellow surface that we think of, is only a few thousand degrees," Caspi said.

Earth-based cameras and telescopes will be able to take some really cool photos and collect some data, however the problem is the images will be a little distorted. They have to look through the entire atmosphere, and that can make those images a little grainy.

"That's why the stars twinkle for example," Caspi said. "They don't twinkle in reality, when you go up in space you won't see the stars twinkle, they twinkle because you're looking at them through a wavy atmosphere."

Another benefit to being high above the ground in a jet is the fact they can stay in darkness longer. Max totality on Earth will provide at most two minutes and 40 seconds of darkness. The two jets while flying over Missouri and Illinois will have nearly four times that in combined time in totality, a significant amount of time to collect some amazing data.

When you're out watching the eclipse, those of us on the ground may have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the twin jets as they are flying overhead at 450mph.

"The wingspan of a WB-57 is 122 feet," Caspi said. "At 50,000 feet if you do the math it's about a third of the size of the moon or the sun, relatively speaking. You might be actually able to see them for a few seconds."

In addition to researching the corona, Southwest Research Institute will also be taking the first-ever thermal images of the planet Mercury. The goal is to understand how the temperature varies across the surface by creating a map of the temperature of the surface.

The aircraft will take off from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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