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How scientists plan to study the 2019 total solar eclipse

By Nola Taylor Redd
July 02, 2019, 12:22:24 PM EDT

In South America, millions of eyes will turn to the skies as the moon moves in front of the sun to present a solar eclipse today (July 2). While nearly the entire continent will see the moon cover at least a portion of the sun, skywatchers in parts of Chile and Argentina will experience a few moments of daytime twilight as the moon completely blots out the sun in a total solar eclipse.

But while most skywatchers will soak in the awe-inspiring sight, some will turn a more critical, scientific eye to the event. The eclipse will take place over the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile, where five teams of scientists will study the atmosphere of the sun and Earth during the eclipse to obtain hard-to-glimpse observations only available in the fleeting moments of daylight darkness.

"On July 2, NSF funding will enable scientists to seize the precious opportunity of a total solar eclipse to study the sun's corona," NSF Program Director David Boboltz said in a statement. The sun will remain hidden for 2 minutes and 6 seconds at the telescope. eclipse image

The sun's tenuous corona shines brightly during a total solar eclipse. (Image: © Miloslav Druckmüller/Peter Aniol/Vojtech Rušin/Ľubomír Klocok/Karel Martišek/Martin Dietzel)

While the moon frequently moves in front of a portion of the sun during partial solar eclipses, which occur a few times a year on average, the sun is completely blocked during a total solar eclipse. The difference between a total solar eclipse and a partial eclipse, even when 99% of the sun is shielded, is dramatic, and can allow a broader range of scientific experiments. When the body of the sun is completely blocked, the elusive inner corona becomes visible.

Made up of extremely hot gases, the corona is mysteriously hotter than the surface of the sun. Despite its high temperature, it is millions of times dimmer than the visible body of the sun, due to its tenuous nature. Studying the corona can reveal insights about the space weather generated by the sun, which can have significant effects on Earth.

In addition to performing valuable science, each team has outlined an eclipse outreach plan to involve local Chilean and foreign students, amateur astronomers, and the general public.

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