SCİENCE

Rare US solar eclipse to help unlock sun's secrets

Event offers unprecedented chance for continuous observations across country

Anadolu Agency

A total solar eclipse Monday will travel across the U.S. and provide scientists with the best opportunity in modern history to explore some of the secrets about the sun’s corona, scientists tell Anadolu Agency.

The coast-to-coast path along a 70-mile (113-kilometer) wide strip of land will help astronomers to study the sun with the help of new technology, on the ground and in space, that was not available during prior eclipses.

“One of the things that is so remarkable about this eclipse is that it crosses 26 miles of continuous landmass which means you can have observers spaced out all along the path from Oregon to North Carolina,” said Dr. Rick Feinberg, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society.

“As the eclipse moves across the country and you hand off from one team to the next, we basically can observe the sun’s corona continuously for about an hour and half, which has never happened before,” he said.

The last American total solar eclipse was 38 years ago, and the last one to cross the entire continental U.S. was in 1918, making the eclipse Monday --observed for the longest in Carbondale, Illinois, for less than three minutes -- the opportunity of a century.

“The sun has told us a lot about itself in about how stars more generally work, but there’s still one mystery that astronomers and solar physicists have not been able to solve,” Feinberg said. “Why is the sun’s outer atmosphere millions of degrees in Fahrenheit when the sun’s surface is only 10,000 degrees?

“What a solar eclipse gives you is an opportunity to look at a part of the sun’s atmosphere that we never otherwise can see. When the sun is not eclipsed, the face of the sun is so intensely bright that it drowns out everything else,” he said.

This means scientists never get to see the inner corona except during eclipses, Feinberg said. “During those couple of minutes, the corona becomes visible and you can observe it with telescopes on the ground and in the air with very high resolution, and very close to the surface of the sun.”

Feinberg noted the continuous coverage of observations offered by the total eclipse route, also known as the path of totality, will also provide immense pragmatic benefits for research.

“So many scientists can easily get to the eclipse and can bring much more equipment then they can bring if they have to fly halfway around the world,” Feinberg said. “I know of one team that is taking 2 tons of scientific equipment. You would not do that if you were flying to Indonesia, for example; you would take two suitcases.

“So there’s going to be more equipment, more teams, more kinds of observations done across a larger swath of the spectrum than any previous eclipse, and that is going to produce vast amounts of data which will hopefully help unlock some of these mysteries about how the sun’s atmosphere gets heated,” he added.

While the study of the sun generates enough excitement in and of itself, the way life on Earth changes in reaction to the solar eclipse presents another opportunity for powerful scientific research.

This is what the Life Responds project aims to capture, Elise Ricard from the California Academy of Sciences told Anadolu Agency.

“We are using the power of citizen scientists and asking them -- in addition to experiencing the eclipse itself -- to also notice how other living organisms are experiencing it too,” Ricard said.

“There’s ample anecdotal evidence that animals and plants respond: birds stop singing, sometimes nocturnal animals might come out, or certain flowers might close up,” she said.

The project asks participants to download an application that allows them to record observations on the day of the eclipse -- contributing to a vast database of visual content and notes.

“What we are hoping to do is to provide the largest scientific baseline of actual documented responses,” Ricard said.

For millions of people, the total solar eclipse promises an experience that will stay with them for life. It also offers a unique source of inspiration for science.

Coupled with a relatively soon but less significant second total eclipse in 2024, the event Monday has the potential to captivate a younger generation and attract them to sciences.

“I’m excited to see when millions of people see this -- whether you’re in totality were not even partial eclipse across many schools and parks and libraries in many places across the country,” Greg Schultz, Senior Scientist and Director at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, told Anadolu Agency. “I think this is going to spark a lot of anticipation for the next one.”

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