Two NASA jets will streak into the darkness created by an August 21 total solar eclipse in an attempt to unravel mysteries of the sun and the planet Mercury.
The jets, called WB-57s, will take off from the U.S. space agency’s Johnson Space Center in Texas and follow the moon’s shadow over Missouri.
Each jet has two telescopes nestled in its nose cone. The telescopes will capture the clearest images to date of the sun’s outer atmosphere — the corona — and the first thermal images of Mercury, revealing how temperature varies across the planet’s surface.
NASA will host a livestream of the eclipse starting at 16:00 UTC on August 21.
During a total solar eclipse, the moon completely blocks the ball of the sun. It’s a perfect time to study the sun’s corona, the aura of hot, high-energy plasma that surrounds the star. Scientists are puzzled as to why the corona heats up to millions of degrees, while the visible surface of the sun sits at a few thousand degrees. The jets’ high-speed, high-resolution photos could provide answers.
“These could well turn out to be the best ever observations” of the sun’s corona, said Dan Seaton of the University of Colorado.
Each jet’s second, infrared telescope will focus on Mercury. With the sun blocked, scientists can make the first heat maps of that planet. Mercury is the rocky planet closest to the sun. Studying how the planet cools as it passes from day to night will tell scientists more about the composition of Mercury’s soil and about how planets like Earth formed.
Cruising at 50,000 feet, the two jets will observe the full eclipse for about three times as long as someone standing on the ground does.