Metro

Harvard-Smithsonian researchers were set to chase the solar eclipse by plane

22eclipseplane - Advanced equipment will be used by researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as they chase the solar eclipse to study the corona.
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Advanced equipment will be used by researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as they chase the solar eclipse to study the corona.

As an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, you’d think that Ed DeLuca would have his eyes on the sky, from start to finish, during Monday’s total solar eclipse.

You’d be wrong.

Instead, he’ll have his face buried in a computer screen, conducting important research about one of the sun’s most fascinating features.

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DeLuca and fellow researchers will be flying roughly 50,000 feet in the air along a portion of the “path of totality,” the 70-mile-wide strip from Oregon to South Carolina in which the moon will pass entirely in front of the sun, chasing the rare solar event from a Gulfstream aircraft.

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On board the plane will be a solar telescope and spectrograph designed to take detailed measurements of the corona, the sun’s outermost atmosphere, in infrared wavelengths, according to Harvard-Smithsonian officials.

The total solar eclipse gives them a rare opportunity to study the corona, which appears as a “pearly white crown,” during totality, according to NASA.

DeLuca said the plan, which has been years in the making, is to get on the path that the shadow takes, and stay within it as it swallows the aircraft.

The research, according to the group, is funded by the National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant. There will be eight people on the plane during the experiment — four scientists, two crew members, and two pilots, DeLuca said.

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Because water vapor in the earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared radiations in the wavelengths researchers are most interested in, flying at a high altitude will allow them to be above most of the water vapor, DeLuca explained.

As the plane passes over Kentucky and into Tennessee, the region where the point of greatest eclipse will be visible, DeLuca and his team will be concentrating on making sure everything is going according to plan, and that their equipment — it looks like something Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” might make — is doing its job.

Of course, that means he’ll miss the exciting moment everyone has been talking about for weeks.

“I’m not going to see this eclipse. For the four minutes we will be in the path, I will be looking at the computer screen on the airplane,” he said. “It’s a sacrifice we have to make for science.”

Below is a graphic outlining the group’s mission:

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.