NASA is launching rockets to study the eclipse. Dartmouth students built instruments onboard.
While the moon is passing in front of the sun during the annular solar eclipse this Saturday, a series of rockets will launch from the desert of New Mexico. They’re part of a NASA mission to better understand what happens to the upper atmosphere of earth during an eclipse.
The sudden loss of sunlight over a confined area during a solar eclipse creates something of a natural experiment, explained Kristina Lynch, a professor and experimental physicist at Dartmouth College.
“It’s a somewhat unusual kick to the system,” Lynch said. “So if you look at how the system responds, you can see, do you understand the system well enough to explain the response to this kick?”
Onboard the NASA rockets will be instruments built by some of Lynch’s students to measure temperature far above the earth’s surface, where satellites orbit and the air is buzzing with electrons and charged particles. Up there, energy from the sun separates electrons from their atoms.
“If you put something in the way, and you make a shadow, then the energy input is suddenly changed, like turning the lights off in a room,” Lynch said.
On Saturday, the rockets will spin like a rifle bullet through the atmosphere before they spit out foot-long cylinders that house several instruments that will radio back data while the rocket is in flight. They don’t look terribly exciting, Lynch said.
“It’s a little rectangular box with a screen on the front," Lynch said. "It’s about a one-inch cube. It’s got little mesh screens, and then it collects current that gets through the screen.”
For now, this is fundamental research to understand how the earth’s environment works, that’s a long way from being used for something like commercial satellites. Still, it’s vital work, Lynch said. “If you don’t understand that at a quantitative level, you can’t use that knowledge operationally.”
The rockets in New Mexico will have giant parachutes, so researchers can recover and use them again. They won’t have to wait too long — NASA is planning another launch from Virginia in April, during the total solar eclipse.
But researchers like Lynch won’t get the instruments they built back after the flight this weekend.
“They just go squish,” she said. “Actually, my student right now is building more.”
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