CONCORD, N.H. — On Saturday, a “ring of fire” solar eclipse will flash across the sky, the first annular eclipse that will be visible in the country since 2012.
Those within the path of the eclipse may be able to see the sun as a thin ring blocked by the moon, as it travels from Oregon to Texas. Starting at around 12:15 p.m., viewers in New Hampshire can expect to see the moon obscure less than 20 percent of the sun, although cloudy skies may block the view. In the Granite State, the maximum eclipse is expected at around 1:24 p.m.
Dartmouth Professor Kristina Lynch has been working hard to get a completely different view of the eclipse than what most of us can hope to see. For the past year and a half, she worked with her students to develop three rockets that NASA will launch Saturday to see how the eclipse impacts the ionosphere, where the air is electric, about 60 miles away from the earth.
Lynch said the rockets are equipped with tools to measure how the shadow disturbs that region. There are theoretical and practical applications of this research. For one, it can show whether our understanding of physics is correct.
A narrow strip of darkness is different than the sun rising and setting each day. “If you’ve properly captured the physics in your understanding of the system, if you give it a different kind of kick, you should be able to explain the response that you see,” said Lynch.
And secondly, Lynch said, there’s a lot of satellite traffic through this part of space, so understanding it better can shape decisions around when it’s safe to launch craft without damaging them.
“If you don’t understand how solar variations affect that region, you can be in a lot of trouble,” she said, pointing to SpaceX losing up to 40 satellites that fell down after they were parked at too low an altitude during a solar storm.
Satellites in that region are used for communication, imaging, measurements, science, and entertainment.
“Understanding that environment is kind of like keeping track of the highways in New Hampshire,” Lynch said. “You need to know when there’s snow on the roads, and you have to plow it.”
The three rockets will be launched 35-minute intervals from White Sands, New Mexico, where NASA has a scientific rocket launch facility. Launching a rocket involves meticulous attention to detail, said Lynch, noting that the team completes a checklist spanning six or seven hours including details down to the minute.
“It’s actually kind of fun to have 50 brains all focusing on exactly the same thing,” she said.
Each rocket is “way bigger” than the size of a person, Lynch said, and the budget to build the instruments on them typically range from $1 million to $2 million. She said the cost is usually spread among a group of universities participating in a given project.
The rockets are also equipped with small, deployable probes each the size of a coffee cup. It will throw four probes out while in space, to take additional measurements of temperatures and densities.
And once they’re done collecting data, these rockets will return to earth with the help of a parachute to be refurbished. Lynch said they’re planning to use the same craft in April, when they study the total solar eclipse. After that, she said, they’ll end up in the ocean and won’t be retrieved.
New England will have a front-row seat for the total eclipse on April 8, 2024. Lynch said the rockets will fly out of NASA Wallops in Virginia to take measurements of that event.
Lynch said eclipses come in 10 to 30 year clumps. The next total eclipse won’t happen until 2044, while the next annular eclipse will be in 2046, according to NASA.
“It is a relatively unusual opportunity, I would say, especially since it’s going so close to these rocket ranges,” Lynch said.