Category: eclipse

Along with the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, or KASI, we’re getting ready to test a new way to see the Sun, high over the New Mexico desert.

A balloon — which looks a translucent white pumpkin, but large enough to hug a football field — will soon take flight, carrying a solar scope called BITSE. BITSE is a coronagraph, a special kind of telescope that blocks the bright face of the Sun to reveal its dimmer atmosphere, called the corona. BITSE stands for Balloon-borne Investigation of Temperature and Speed of Electrons in the corona.


Its goal? Explaining how the Sun spits out the solar wind, the stream of charged particles that blows constantly from the Sun. Scientists generally know it forms in the corona, but exactly how it does so is a mystery.

The solar wind is important because it’s the stuff that fills the space around Earth and all the other planets in our solar system. And, understanding how the solar wind works is key to predicting how solar eruptions travel. It’s a bit like a water slide: The way it flows determines how solar storms barrel through space. Sometimes, those storms crash into our planet’s magnetic field, sparking disturbances that can interfere with satellites and communications signals we use every day, like radio or GPS.


Right now, scientists and engineers are in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, preparing to fly BITSE up to the edge of the atmosphere. BITSE will take pictures of the corona, measuring the density, temperature and speed of negatively charged particles — called electrons — in the solar wind. Scientists need these three things to answer the question of how the solar wind forms.

One day, scientists hope to send an instrument like BITSE to space, where it can study the Sun day in and day out, and help us understand the powerful forces that push the solar wind out to speeds of 1 million miles per hour. BITSE’s balloon flight is an important step towards space, since it will help this team of scientists and engineers fine-tune their tech for future space-bound missions.  


Hours before sunrise, technicians from our Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility’s field site in Fort Sumner will ready the balloon for flight, partially filling the large plastic envelope with helium. The balloon is made of polyethylene — the same stuff grocery bags are made of — and is about as thick as a plastic sandwich bag, but much stronger. As the balloon rises higher into the sky, the gas in the balloon expands and the balloon grows to full size.

BITSE will float 22 miles over the desert. For at least six hours, it will drift, taking pictures of the Sun’s seething hot atmosphere. By the end of the day, it will have collected 40 feature-length movies’ worth of data.


BITSE’s journey to the sky began with an eclipse. Coronagraphs use a metal disk to mimic a total solar eclipse — but instead of the Moon sliding in between the Sun and Earth, the disk blocks the Sun’s face to reveal the dim corona. During the Aug. 21, 2017, total eclipse, our scientists tested key parts of this instrument in Madras, Oregon.


Now, the scientists are stepping out from the Moon’s shadow. A balloon will take BITSE up to the edge of the atmosphere. Balloons are a low-cost way to explore this part of the sky, allowing scientists to make better measurements and perform tests they can’t from the ground.

BITSE carries several important technologies. It’s built on one stage of lens, rather than three, like traditional coronagraphs. That means it’s designed more simply, and less likely to have a mechanical problem. And, it has a couple different sets of specialized filters that capture different kinds of light: polarized light — light waves that bob in certain directions — and specific wavelengths of light. The combination of these images provides scientists with information on the density, temperature and speed of electrons in the corona.


More than 22 miles over the ground, BITSE will fly high above birds, airplanes, weather and the blue sky itself. As the atmosphere thins out, there are less air particles to scatter light. That means at BITSE’s altitude, the sky is dimmer. These are good conditions for a coronagraph, whose goal is taking images of the dim corona. But even the upper atmosphere is brighter than space.

That’s why scientists are so eager to test BITSE on this balloon, and develop their instrument for a future space mission. The solar scope is designed to train its eyes on a slice of the corona that’s not well-studied, and key to solar wind formation. One day, a version of BITSE could do this from space, helping scientists gather new clues to the origins of the solar wind.  


At the end of BITSE’s flight, the crew at the Fort Sumner field site will send termination commands, kicking off a sequence that separates the instrument and balloon, deploys the instrument’s parachute, and punctures the balloon. An airplane circling overhead will keep watch over the balloon’s final moments, and relay BITSE’s location. At the end of its flight, far from where it started, the coronagraph will parachute to the ground. A crew will drive into the desert to recover both the balloon and BITSE at the end of the day.

For more information on how we use balloons for high-altitude science missions, visit:

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On July 2, 2019, a total solar eclipse will pass over parts of Argentina and Chile.


Solar eclipses happen when the Moon passes directly between the Sun and Earth, casting its shadow onto Earth’s surface. Because the Moon’s orbit isn’t perfectly in line with the Sun and Earth, its shadow usually passes above or below Earth. But when it lines up just right, we get a solar eclipse!


People in the inner part of the Moon’s shadow — the umbra — have the chance to witness a total solar eclipse, while those in the outer part of the shadow — the penumbra — experience a partial solar eclipse.


The path of the total solar eclipse stretches across parts of Chile and Argentina. People outside this path may see a partial eclipse or no eclipse at all.

During a total solar eclipse, the Moon blocks out the Sun’s bright face, revealing its comparatively faint outer atmosphere, the corona. The corona is a dynamic region that is thought to hold the answers to questions about the fundamental physics of the Sun — like why the corona is so much hotter than the Sun’s surface and how the Sun’s constant outflow of material, the solar wind, is accelerated to such high speeds


Our Parker Solar Probe and the upcoming Solar Orbiter mission from the European Space Agency are exploring these questions by flying through the corona itself and taking unprecedented measurements of the conditions there. Plus, our newly-chosen PUNCH mission will create tiny, artificial eclipses in front of its cameras — using an instrument called a coronagraph — to study structures in the Sun’s corona and examine how it generates the solar wind.

Watching the eclipse

It’s never safe to look directly at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed Sun – so you’ll need special

solar viewing glasses

or an indirect viewing method, like

pinhole projection

, to watch the eclipse. 


For people in the path of totality, there will be a few brief moments when it is safe to look directly at the eclipse. Only once the Moon has completely covered the Sun and there is no sunlight shining is it safe to look at the eclipse. Make sure you put your eclipse glasses back on or return to indirect viewing before the first flash of sunlight appears around the Moon’s edge.

No matter where you are, you can watch the eclipse online! The Exploratorium will be streaming live views of the eclipse with commentary in both English and Spanish starting at 4 p.m. EDT / 1 p.m. PDT on July 2. Watch with us at!

Para más información e actualizaciones en español acerca del eclipse, sigue a @NASA_es en Twitter o vea esta hoja de hechos.

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One hundred years ago a total solar eclipse turned an obscure scientist into a household name. You might have heard of him — his name is Albert Einstein. But how did a solar eclipse propel him to fame?

First, it would be good to know a couple things about general relativity. (Wait, don’t go! We’ll keep this to the basics!)


A decade before he finished general relativity, Einstein published his special theory of relativity, which demonstrates how space and time are interwoven as a single structure he dubbed “space-time.” General relativity extended the foundation of special relativity to include gravity. Einstein realized that gravitational fields can be understood as bends and curves in space-time that affect the motions of objects including stars, planets — and even light.

For everyday situations the centuries-old description of gravity by Isaac Newton does just fine. However, general relativity must be accounted for when we study places with strong gravity, like black holes or neutron stars, or when we need very precise measurements, like pinpointing a position on Earth to within a few feet. That makes it hard to test!


A prediction of general relativity is that light passing by an object feels a slight “tug”, causing the light’s path to bend slightly. The more mass the object has, the more the light will be deflected. This sets up one of the tests that Einstein suggested — measuring how starlight bends around the Sun, the strongest source of gravity in our neighborhood. Starlight that passes near the edge of the Sun on its way to Earth is deflected, altering by a small amount where those stars appear to be. How much? By about the width of a dime if you saw it at a mile and a quarter away! But how can you observe faint stars near the brilliant Sun? During a total solar eclipse!


That’s where the May 29, 1919, total solar eclipse comes in. Two teams were dispatched to locations in the path of totality — the places on Earth where the Moon will appear to completely cover the face of the Sun during an eclipse. One team went to South America and another to Africa.

On eclipse day, the sky vexed both teams, with rain in Africa and clouds in South America. The teams had only mere minutes of totality during which to take their photographs, or they would lose the opportunity until the next total solar eclipse in 1921! However, the weather cleared at both sites long enough for the teams to take images of the stars during totality.


The teams took two sets of photographs of the same patch of sky – one set during the eclipse and another set a few months before or after, when the Sun was out of the way. By comparing these two sets of photographs, researchers could see if the apparent star positions changed as predicted by Einstein. This is shown with the effect exaggerated in the image above.

A few months after the eclipse, when the teams sorted out their measurements, the results demonstrated that general relativity correctly predicted the positions of the stars. Newspapers across the globe announced that the controversial theory was proven (even though that’s not quite how science works). It was this success that propelled Einstein into the public eye.


The solar eclipse wasn’t the first test of general relativity. For more than two centuries, astronomers had known that Mercury’s orbit was a little off. Its perihelion — the point during its orbit when it is closest to the Sun — was changing faster than Newton’s laws predicted. General relativity easily explains it, though, because Mercury is so close to the Sun that its orbit is affected by the Sun’s dent in space-time, causing the discrepancy.  

In fact, we still test general relativity today under different conditions and in different situations to see whether or not it holds up. So far, it has passed every test we’ve thrown at it.

Curious to know where we need general relativity to understand objects in space? Tune into our Tumblr tomorrow to find out!


You can also read more about how our understanding of the universe has changed during the past 100 years, from Einstein’s formulation of gravity through the discovery of dark energy in our Cosmic Times newspaper series.

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Tonight, Australians, Africans, Europeans, Asians and South Americans will have the opportunity to see the longest lunar eclipse of the century. Sorry North America. 

Lunar eclipses occur about 2-4 times per year, when the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. In order to see a lunar eclipse, you must be on the night side of the Earth, facing the Moon, when the Earth passes in between the Moon and the Sun. Need help visualizing this? Here you go:

What’s the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse?

An easy way to remember the difference between a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse is that the word ‘eclipse’ refers to the object that is being obscured. During a solar eclipse, the Moon blocks the Sun from view. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow obscures the Moon.

Why does the Moon turn red?  

You may have heard the term ‘Blood Moon’ for a lunar eclipse. When the Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, it turns red. This happens for the exact same reason that our sunrises and sunsets here on Earth are brilliant shades of pinks and oranges. During a lunar eclipse, the only light reaching the Moon passes through the Earth’s atmosphere. The bluer, shorter wavelength light scatters and the longer wavelength red light passes through and makes it to the Moon.

What science can we learn from a lunar eclipse?

“During a lunar eclipse, the temperature swing is so dramatic that it’s as if the surface of the Moon goes from being in an oven to being in a freezer in just a few hours,” said Noah Petro, project scientist for our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, at our Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.


The Diviner team from LRO measures temperature changes on the Moon through their instrument on the spacecraft as well as through a thermal camera on Earth. How quickly or slowly the lunar surface loses heat helps scientists determine characteristics of lunar material, including its composition and physical properties.

When is the next lunar eclipse?

North Americans, don’t worry. If skies are clear, you can see the next lunar eclipse on January 21, 2019. The eclipse will be visible to North Americans, South Americans, and most of Africa and Europe.


To keep an eye on the Moon with us check out or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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Did you know we’re watching the Sun 24/7 from space?

We use a whole
fleet of satellites
to monitor the Sun and its influences on the solar
system. One of those is the Solar Dynamics
. It’s been in space for eight years, keeping an eye on the Sun
almost every moment of every day. Launched on Feb. 11, 2010, this satellite
(also known as SDO) was originally designed for a two-year mission, but it’s
still collecting data to this day — and one of our best ways to keep an eye on
our star.

To celebrate another year of SDO, we’re sharing some of our
favorite solar views that the spacecraft sent back to Earth in 2017.

 March: A long spotless


For 15 days starting on March 7, SDO
saw the yolk-like spotless Sun in visible light

The Sun goes through a natural 11-year cycle of activity
marked by two extremes: solar maximum and solar minimum. Sunspots are dark
regions of complex magnetic activity on the Sun’s surface, and the number of
sunspots at any given time is used as an index of solar activity.

  • Solar maximum = intense solar activity and more
  • Solar minimum = less solar activity and fewer

This March 2017 period was the longest stretch of spotlessness since the last solar minimum in April 2010 – a sure sign that the solar cycle is marching on toward the next minimum, which scientists expect in 2019-2020. For comparison, the images on the left are from Feb. 2014 – during the last solar maximum –  and show a much spottier Sun.

June: Energized active


 A pair of relatively small but frenetic
active regions
– areas of intense and complex magnetic fields – rotated
into SDO’s view May 31 – June 2, while spouting off numerous small flares and
sweeping loops of plasma. The dynamic regions were easily the most remarkable
areas on the Sun during this 42-hour period.

July: Two weeks in the
life of a sunspot

On July 5, SDO watched an active region rotate into view on
the Sun. The satellite continued
to track the region
as it grew and eventually rotated across the Sun and
out of view on July 17.  

With their complex magnetic fields, sunspots are often the
source of interesting solar activity: During its 13-day trip across the face of
the Sun, the active region — dubbed AR12665 — put on a show for our Sun-watching
satellites, producing several solar flares, a coronal mass ejection and a solar
energetic particle event. 

August: An eclipse in


While millions of people in North America experienced a
total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, SDO
saw a partial eclipse from space
. SDO actually sees several
lunar transits
a year from its perspective – but an eclipse on the ground doesn’t necessarily
mean that SDO will see anything out of the ordinary. Even on Aug. 21, SDO saw
only 14 percent of the Sun blocked by the Moon, while most US residents saw 60
percent blockage or more.

September: A spate of
solar activity


In September 2017, SDO saw a
spate of solar activity
, with the Sun emitting 31 notable flares and
releasing several powerful coronal mass ejections between Sept. 6-10. Solar
flares are powerful bursts of radiation, while coronal mass ejections are
massive clouds of solar material and magnetic fields that erupt from the Sun at
incredible speeds.

One of the flares imaged by SDO on Sept. 6 was classified as
X9.3 – clocking in at the most powerful flare of the current solar cycle. The
current cycle began in December 2008 and is now decreasing in intensity,
heading toward solar minimum. During solar minimum, such eruptions on the Sun
are increasingly rare, but history has shown that they can nonetheless be

September: A trio of


distinct solar active regions
with towering arches rotated into SDO’s view
over a three-day period from Sept. 24-26. Charged particles spinning along the
ever-changing magnetic field lines above the active regions trace out the
magnetic field in extreme ultraviolet light, a type of light that is typically
invisible to our eyes, but is colorized here in gold. To give some sense of
scale, the largest arches are many times the size of Earth.

December: A curling


SDO saw a small prominence arch up
and send streams of solar material curling back into the Sun over a 30-hour
period on Dec. 13-14. Prominences are relatively cool strands of solar material
tethered above the Sun’s surface by magnetic fields.

 December: Solar
question mark


An elongated coronal hole — the darker area near the center
of the Sun’s disk — looked
something like a question mark
when seen in extreme ultraviolet light by SDO
on Dec. 21-22. Coronal holes are magnetically open areas on the Sun that
allow high-speed solar wind to gush out into space. They appear as dark areas
when seen in certain wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light.

For all the latest on the Solar Dynamics Observatory, visit
Keep up with the latest on the Sun on Twitter @NASASun or at

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If you were captivated by August’s total solar eclipse, there’s another sky show to look forward to on Jan. 31: a total lunar eclipse!


Below are 10 things to know about this astronomical event, including where to see it, why it turns the Moon into a deep red color and more…

1. First things first. What’s the difference between solar and lunar eclipses? We’ve got the quick and easy explanation in this video:

2. Location, location, location. What you see will depend on where you are. The total lunar eclipse will favor the western U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, and British Columbia on Jan. 31. Australia and the Pacific Ocean are also well placed to see a major portion of the eclipse, if not all of it.


3. Color play. So, why does the Moon turn red during a lunar eclipse? Here’s your answer:

4. Scientists, stand by. What science can be done during a lunar eclipse? Find out HERE

5. Show and tell. What would Earth look like from the Moon during a lunar eclipse? See for yourself with this artist’s concept HERE

6. Ask me anything. Mark your calendars to learn more about the Moon during our our Reddit AMA happening Monday, Jan. 29, from 3-4 pm EST/12-1 pm PST.

7. Social cues. Make sure to follow @NASAMoon and @LRO_NASA for all of the latest Moon news leading up to the eclipse and beyond.

8. Watch year-round. Can’t get enough of observing the Moon? Make a DIY Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator that will keep all of the dates and times for the year’s moon phases right at your fingertips HERE.

Then, jot down notes and record your own illustrations of the Moon with a Moon observation journal, available to download and print from

9. Lesson learned. For educators, pique your students’ curiosities about the lunar eclipse with this Teachable Moment HERE.

10. Coming attraction. There will be one more lunar eclipse this year on July 27, 2018. But you might need your passport—it will only be visible from central Africa and central Asia. The next lunar eclipse that can be seen all over the U.S. will be on Jan. 21, 2019. It won’t be a blue moon, but it will be a supermoon.

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What’s Up For January? 

Quadrantid meteors, a West Coast-favoring total lunar eclipse and time to start watching Mars!


This month the new year’s first meteor shower fizzles, Mars meets Jupiter in the morning sky and the U.S. will enjoy a total lunar eclipse!


Most meteor showers radiate from recognizable constellations. Like the Leonids, Geminids and Orionids.


But the Quadrantids are meteors that appear to radiate from the location of the former Quadrans Muralis constellation, an area that’s now part of the constellation Bootes.


The Quadrantids’ peak lasts for just a few hours, and sadly, this year their timing coincides with a very bright, nearly full moon that will wash out most of the meteors.


You can look in any direction to see all the meteor showers. When you see one of these meteors, hold a shoestring along the path it followed. The shoestring will lead you back to the constellation containing the meteor’s origin.


On the morning of January 6th, look in the south-southeast sky 45 minutes before sunrise to see Jupiter and fainter Mars almost as close as last month’s Jupiter and Venus close pairing.


Mars is only one-sixth the apparent diameter of Jupiter, but the two offer a great binocular and telescopic view with a pretty color contrast. They remain in each other’s neighborhood from January 5th through the 8th.


Finally, to end the month, a great total lunar eclipse favors the western U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii and British Columbia on January 31st. Australia and the Pacific Ocean are well placed to see a major portion of the eclipse–if not all of it.


Watch the full What’s Up for January Video: 

There are so many sights to see in the sky. To stay informed, subscribe to our What’s Up video series on Facebook.

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Our Instagram page has over 2,200 images and is lucky enough to be followed by more than 29 million fans.

What images and videos were your favorite from this past year? Great question, and one we asked ourselves too!

Here’s a look at our most liked Instagram posts* of 2017…Enjoy!

#10 Black Hole Collision


What happens when two supermassive black holes collide? Until last year, we weren’t quite sure. Gravitational waves!  With 834,169  likes, this image is our 10th most liked of 2017.

#9 Italy Through the Space Station Cupola Window


European astronaut Paolo Nespoli (@Astro_Paolo) shared this image on social media of “Southern #Italy and Sicily framed by one of our Cupola windows” aboard the International Space Station. This image ranks #9 for 2017 with 847,365 likes.

#8 Black Hole Friday


For our 5th annual #BlackHoleFriday we’ll share awesome images and facts about black holes! A black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out. With 916,247 likes, this picture ranks #8 for 2017.

#7 The Elements of Cassiopeia A


Did you know that stellar explosions and their remains–“supernova remnants”–are a source of chemical elements essential for life here on Earth? A new Chandra X-ray Observatory image captures the location of several vital elements like silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple), located on Cassiopeia A–a supernova remnant ~11,000 light years from Earth.  This image ranks #7 for 2017 with 943,806 likes.

#6 Jupiter Blues


Jupiter, you’re bluetiful 💙 ! Churning swirls of Jupiter’s clouds are seen in striking shades of blue in this new view taken by our Juno spacecraft. This image ranks as our sixth most liked Instagram post of 2017 with 990,944 likes.

#5 An Interstellar Visitor


An interstellar visitor…scientists have confirmed that an intriguing asteroid that zipped through our solar system in October is the first confirmed object from another star! Observations suggest that this unusual object had been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system. With 1,015,721 likes, this image ranks #5 for 2017.

#4 Space Station Lunar Transit


Space station supermoon. This composite image made from six frames shows the International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, as it transits the Moon at roughly five miles per second on Dec. 2. This image ranks #4 for 2017 with 1,037,520 likes.

#3 The Space Between Us

A post shared by NASA (@nasa) on

The beautiful space between Earth and the International Space Station was immortalized by NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei while orbiting 250 miles above the planet we call home. This majestic image ranks #3 for 2017 with 1,042,403 likes.

#2 The Moon Swallows the Sun

A post shared by NASA (@nasa) on

Today, the Sun disappeared, seemingly swallowed by our Moon–at least for a while. The August 21 solar eclipse cut through a swath of North America from coast to coast and those along the path of totality, that is where the Moon completely covered the Sun, were faced with a sight unseen in the U.S. in 99 years. Which might have something to do with this image ranking #2 for 2017 with 1,144,503 likes.

#1 Solar Eclipse Over Cascade Lake

A post shared by NASA (@nasa) on

Behold! This progression of the partial solar eclipse took place over Ross Lake, in Northern Cascades National Park, Washington on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. 

This photo was our #1 image of 2017 with 1,471,114 likes!

See them all here!

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*Posts and rankings are were taken as of Dec. 28, 2017.

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While millions of
people in North America headed outside to watch the eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, hundreds of scientists got out telescopes, set up instruments, and
prepared balloon launches – all so they could study the Sun and its complicated
influence on Earth.


Total solar
eclipses happen about once every 18 months somewhere in the world, but the
August eclipse was rare because of its long path over land. The total eclipse
lasted more than 90 minutes over land, from when it first reached Oregon to
when it left the U.S. in South Carolina.


This meant that
scientists could collect more data from land than during most eclipses, giving
us new insight into our world and the star that powers it.

A moment in the Sun’s

During a total solar
eclipse, the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, is visible from Earth. It’s
normally too dim to see next to the Sun’s bright face, but, during an eclipse, the
Moon blocks out the Sun, revealing the corona.


Image Credit: Peter Aniol, Miloslav Druckmüller and Shadia Habbal

Though we can
study parts of the corona with instruments that create artificial eclipses, some
of the innermost regions of the corona are only visible during total solar
eclipses. Solar scientists think this part of the corona may hold the secrets
to some of our most fundamental questions about the Sun: Like how the solar
wind – the constant flow of magnetized material that streams out from the Sun
and fills the solar system – is accelerated, and why the corona is so much
hotter than the Sun’s surface below.  

Depending on
where you were, someone watching the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 might have
been able to see the Moon completely obscuring the Sun for up to two minutes
and 42 seconds. One scientist wanted to stretch that even further – so he used
a pair of our WB-57 jets to chase the path of the Moon’s shadow, giving their
telescopes an uninterrupted view of the solar corona for just over seven and half minutes.


telescopes were originally designed to help monitor space shuttle launches, and
the eclipse campaign was their first airborne astronomy project!


scientists weren’t the only ones who had the idea to stretch out their view of
the eclipse: The Citizen CATE project (short for Continental-America Telescopic
Eclipse) did something similar, but with the help of hundreds of citizen scientists. 

Citizen CATE included
68 identical small telescopes spread out across the path of totality, operated
by citizen and student scientists. As the Moon’s shadow left one telescope, it reached
the next one in the lineup, giving scientists a longer look at the way the
corona changes throughout the eclipse.


accounting for clouds, Citizen CATE telescopes were able to collect 82 minutes
of images, out of the 93 total minutes that the eclipse was over the US. Their
images will help scientists study the dynamics of the inner corona, including
fast solar wind flows near the Sun’s north and south poles.

The magnetized solar
wind can interact with Earth’s magnetic field, causing auroras, interfering
with satellites, and – in extreme cases – even straining our power systems, and
all these measurements will help us better understand how the Sun sends this
material speeding out into space.

Exploring the Sun-Earth

Scientists also
used the eclipse as a natural laboratory to explore the Sun’s complicated
influence on Earth.

High in Earth’s
upper atmosphere, above the ozone layer, the Sun’s intense radiation creates a
layer of electrified particles called the ionosphere. This region of the
atmosphere reacts to changes from both Earth below and space above. Such
changes in the lower atmosphere or space weather can manifest as disruptions in
the ionosphere that can interfere with communication and navigation signals.


One group of
scientists used the eclipse to test computer models of the ionosphere’s effects
on these communications signals. They predicted that radio signals would travel
farther during the eclipse because of a drop in the number of energized particles.
Their eclipse day data – collected by scientists spread out across the US and
by thousands of amateur radio operators – proved that prediction right.

In another
experiment, scientists used the Eclipse Ballooning Project to investigate the eclipse’s effects
lower in the atmosphere. The project incorporated weather balloon flights from
a dozen locations to form a picture of how Earth’s lower atmosphere – the part
we interact with and which directly affects our weather – reacted to the
eclipse. They found that the planetary boundary layer, the lowest part of
Earth’s atmosphere, actually moved closer to Earth during the eclipse, dropped
down nearly to its nighttime altitude.


A handful of these
balloons also flew cards containing harmless bacteria
to explore the potential
for contamination
of other planets with Earth-born life. Earth’s stratosphere is similar to the surface of Mars, except in one main way:
the amount of sunlight. But during the eclipse, the level of sunlight dropped
to something closer to what you’d expect to see on Mars, making this the
perfect testbed to explore whether Earth microbes could hitch a ride to the Red
Planet and survive. Scientists are working through the data collected, hoping
to build up better information to help robotic and human explorers alike avoid
carrying bacterial hitchhikers to Mars.


Image: The small metal card used to transport bacteria.

Finally, our
EPIC instrument aboard NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite provided awe-inspiring views of the
eclipse, but it’s also helping scientists understand Earth’s energy balance. Earth’s energy system is in a constant
dance to maintain a balance between incoming radiation from the Sun and
outgoing radiation from Earth to space, which scientists call the Earth’s
energy budget. The role of clouds, both thick and thin, is important in their
effect on energy balance.


Like a giant
cloud, the Moon during the total solar eclipse cast a large shadow across a
swath of the United States. Scientists know the dimensions and light-blocking
properties of the Moon, so they used ground- and space-based instruments to
learn how this large shadow affects the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s
surface, especially around the edges of the shadow. Measurements from EPIC show
a 10% drop in light reflected from Earth during the eclipse (compared to about
1% on a normal day). That number will help scientists model how clouds radiate the
Sun’s energy – which drives our planet’s ocean currents, seasons, weather and
climate – away from our planet.

even more eclipse science updates, stay tuned to

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