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Upcoming solar eclipse promises to be the best yet for scientific experiments

April’s total solar eclipse promises to be a scientific bonanza, thanks to new spacecraft and telescopes — and cosmic chance.

The moon will be extra close to Earth, providing a long and intense period of darkness, and the sun should be more active with the potential for dramatic bursts of plasma. Then there’s totality’s densely populated corridor stretching from Mexico to the U.S. to Canada.
Hundreds if not thousands of the tens of millions of spectators will double as “citizen scientists,” helping NASA and other research groups better understand our planet and star.

They’ll photograph the sun’s outer crownlike atmosphere, or corona, as the moon passes between the sun and Earth, blotting out sunlight for up to 4 minutes and 28 seconds on April 8. They’ll observe the quieting of birds and other animals as midday darkness falls. They’ll also measure dropping temperatures, monitor clouds and use ham radios to gauge communication disruptions.

At the same time, rockets will blast off with science instruments into the electrically charged portion of the atmosphere near the edge of space known as the ionosphere. The small rockets will soar from Wallops Island, Virginia — some 400 miles outside totality but with 81% of the sun obscured in a partial eclipse. Similar launches were conducted from New Mexico during last October’s “ring of fire” solar eclipse that swept across the western U.S. and Central and South America.

“Time for the biggie! It is pretty exciting!!!” Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Aroh Barjatya, the rockets’ mission director, said in an email.

NASA’s high-altitude jets also will take to the air again, chasing the moon’s shadow with improved telescopes to study the sun’s corona and surrounding dust.

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