HOUSTON – With the great American eclipse of 2017 now passed, scientists will spend months studying data and images collected by a pair of NASA jets.
The WB 57 jets took off from Ellington Airport and flew in the path of totality at an altitude of 50,000 feet.
“It was amazing; it was quite a view," said Tom Parent, NASA research pilot.
Even for a seasoned research pilot such as Parent, seeing totality from the upper atmosphere is an awe-inspiring perspective.
“It was just amazing when that corona was just so bright and crisp at that altitude," Parent said.
Parent said the flight was smooth, which gave special equipment operators the best shot at getting a full four minutes of high quality images of the eclipse. Both jets were equipped with high resolution, high speed cameras with infrared capabilities.
Unfortunately, getting the perfect shot also left little time for special equipment operator Donald Darrow to take in the cosmic vistas for himself.
“I was pretty busy doing other stuff trying to collect the science, I only stole about two looks," Darrow said.
Even though the men spent countless hours practicing this mission, they admitted to a few jitters.
“Today, we didn’t have that luxury of coming back out and doing it again. It was a lot of pressure on everybody," Parent said.
For those monitoring these flights on the ground, getting this data meant getting the chance to peel back a little of the cosmic curtain.
“They got us exactly what we needed. They hit their marks, they were right on time," said Amir Caspi, PhD. "We got what we came for, mission success."
Caspi is a senior research scientist with the Southwest Research Institute and the principal investigator for this mission. He said getting crisp shots of the sun's corona is key to understanding why it is millions of degrees hotter than the sun's surface.
“We’re trying to understand how the temperature can rise from a few thousand degrees to a few million degrees when you’re going away from what you would think of as your heat source," Caspi said.
Caspi said also getting thermal images of Mercury will help scientists better understand the composition of that planet. Caspi said the day side of Mercury is more then 750 degrees, while the night side is minus 250 degrees.
Caspi said scientists are looking to understand how Mercury's surface can handle such extremes, and how long it takes to go from one temperature to the other given that one day on Mercury is equivalent to 58.5 days on earth.
“If we can better understand that, then we an understand how compact that soil is and what it’s made of, and that will better teach how Mercury was formed," Caspi said.
Caspi said it will still take a couple of weeks to download all the data collected for study. The jets also collected particles from comets and asteroids in our upper atmosphere, which were brought back for study as well.