June 22, 2024

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NASA launching rockets during total solar eclipse

3 min read

While many of us will be looking up at the sky during Monday’s solar eclipse, scientists will be launching rockets for a unique opportunity to study the atmosphere.

WASHINGTON — When the moon blocks the sun during the eclipse Monday, it will cast a supersonic cooling shadow on Earth. This will give scientists the opportunity to study how the atmosphere changes and how that affects us down here on earth.

Sounding rockets are capable of collecting a large amount of accurate data in a very short period of time, making them ideal for studying phenomena like Atmospheric Perturbations around the Eclipse Path – or APEP – which is the name of NASA’s upcoming mission.

“Eclipse gives us a unique opportunity because we know where it is happening, when it is happening to study not just what eclipse can do, but also how those basic phenomena physics phenomena happen and propagate,” explains Dr. Aroh Barjatya, the principal investigator of the APEP mission. “And whatever we learn is applicable for other situations as well, not just eclipse.”

The region being studied is called the ionosphere. It’s a part of the atmosphere 50 to 300 miles above earth’s surface. Scientists want to better understand how the ionosphere changes during unusual events, and this is where the eclipse comes into play. Think of the ionosphere as a pond with gentle ripples. The eclipse will be like a motorboat flying through the water, creating a wake immediately underneath and behind it.

“That localized effect kind of creates a whip lash where the ionospheres density comes down and comes back up rapidly,” says Barjatya.

So why should we care about disturbances like this in the atmosphere?

“We are an increasingly connected society with radio signals everywhere, and all of these perturbations reduce the strength of the radio signals,” Barjatya explains. 

“The better we can understand it through this mission, the better we can make that technology work,” adds Maxim King, the Campaign Manager for the APEP mission.

RELATED: How to see a NASA rocket launch from Wallops Island

The rockets will be in flight for only 10 to 15 minutes. During that time they will send back valuable data that can only be collected during an eclipse. Then the rockets crash into the ocean.

Prepping for flights like this takes years. There’s all the engineering, assembly and then testing.

“These vibration tables are basically like a large speaker and we’re going to pump a lot of sound and vibration into it that replicates the flight environment and actually goes above and beyond the flight environment so that if anything is going to break, it’s going to break here,” says King.

And during the total solar eclipse, NASA will launch three sounding rockets in search of information to better understand the atmosphere around us.

One of the rockets will be launched 45 minutes before the peak eclipse time, one during the peak, and another 45 minutes after the peak. If you want to see the rockets being launched, you can head to Wallops Island. The Visitor Center is hosting an eclipse watch party where, yes, you can also see the rockets take off. 

RELATED: 9+ DMV-area viewing parties for the eclipse

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2024-04-05 21:58:55

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