How the upcoming solar eclipse could warp space weather

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Aug 18, 2017

If you haven’t seen eclipse updates everywhere you click by now, you’re probably living in the dark—but besides briefly blacking out anything in the path of totality and being the photo op of a lifetime, it’s also going to have some effect on space weather.

What really stands out about a total solar eclipse, besides how it seems to bring the middle of the night out of nowhere, is the sun’s lower corona. Such an event gives it visibility that no telescope can replicate. The lower corona sheds light on solar processes like solar wind and radiation, which can threaten communications systems and even spacecraft, as well as the question of why the sun’s atmosphere is so much more scorching than its surface.

Led by Haystack Assistant Director Phil Erickson, a team of MIT scientists will study the eclipse using the Millstone Hill incoherent scatter radar facility, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, along with the Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory, the NASA TIMED satellite mission, and a broad network of ground-based GPS receivers (not the GPS in your car with that creepy robotic voice). The scientists plan to observe how the sun’s temporary vanishing when the moon is in transit will influence Earth’s ionosphere, and their eclipse research is even more legit because it’s funded by NASA.

Solar radiation supercharges the ionosphere with ions and free electrons in our planet’s otherwise neutral upper atmosphere. Unfortunately, special powers don’t come without the potential for causing glitches in this case. Space weather phenomena such as geomagnetic storms and solar flares could get in the way of communication, and navigational satellite systems in the ionosphere add even electrical power grids right here on the surface. When the sun flickers on and off, it could cause traveling ionospheric disturbances (TIDs).

Oh, and this is all going to be livestreamed with a live optical feed. You’ll actually be able to follow any changes that occur in the ionosphere in real time.

“The most exciting thing about the eclipse for scientists is that we’ll be able to monitor this event in incredible detail, using a combination of high-precision satellite networks all along the path of totality,” said Haystack Observatory assistant director Anthea Coster. “The specially equipped receivers we’re placing across the continent will enable us to gather data of unprecedented quality."

As if a GPS network with arms stretching across the nation weren't enough, supplementary sites will give it a boost by collecting data at warp speed to document atmospheric changes during every phase of the eclipse.

Get your special glasses ready!

(via MIT News)