Rockets and planes will chase the eclipse to solve the sun’s enduring mysteries

Rockets and planes will chase the eclipse to solve the sun’s enduring mysteries


Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.


Here comes the sun, as the Beatles famously sang.

On Monday, a total solar eclipse will grace the skies over Mexico, the United States and Canada as the moon obscures the face of the sun from view, momentarily turning day to night.

Millions of people will be in the path to witness the celestial phenomenon unfold. As the eclipse creates syzygy, or the alignment of three bodies in space, it will unite spectators in moments of wonder.

Totality, when the sun’s light is briefly dimmed, plays on the emotions. You know it’s coming, but the sudden change is still so unexpected — and it’s something I’m personally hoping to experience for the first time when I’m reporting from my own spot within the path.

So grab your eclipse glasses, savor eclipse-themed treats and cue up a stellar-themed playlist (“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” anyone?). It will soon be time to indulge in a bit of cosmic awe and whimsy.

Amir Caspi/Courtesy NASA

NASA’s WB-57 jets will fly within the path of totality on Monday to collect data about the sun during the eclipse.

High-altitude aircraft will fly within the path of Monday’s eclipse to unravel some of the greatest unresolved secrets about the sun.

Three sounding rockets are set to lift off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia before, during and after the eclipse to measure the impact of the sun on Earth’s upper atmosphere, known as the ionosphere.

Meanwhile, NASA is outfitting its WB-57 planes with scientific instruments as they fly 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) above Earth’s surface to get a clear view of the sun’s outer atmosphere. Called the corona, it’s millions of degrees hotter than the sun’s surface, but scientists don’t know why.

The faint corona will be visible during the eclipse when the sun’s light is blocked, allowing researchers a detailed look at its mysterious glowing structures.

Packing for your eclipse travels or trying to decide what to wear on Monday? A nifty optical phenomenon that occurs during the celestial event might make you lean more toward red and green.

More than two centuries ago, physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkyně noted how dissimilar red flowers appear on sunny days versus nighttime. The Purkinje effect explains why some colors appear differently depending on lighting.

For example, in low light, bright reds appear dark or nearly black, while blues and greens increase in vividness. And the quick contrast of an eclipse makes this effect plain to see.

Send us your stories and photos from the eclipse!

Are you watching the eclipse from the path of totality? Did you travel far and gather with family and friends to witness the event? Or is your hometown in the path of what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle? Everyone has their own eclipse story to tell, and we want to hear yours! Send images* and a few details about your eclipse experience to, and it could end up in CNN’s ongoing Eclipse Across America coverage. Please share your full name and pronouns for credit and caption info.

Eric Adams/AP

A total solar eclipse is visible through the clouds as seen from the island of Vágar, one of the Faroe Islands, on March 20, 2015.

As the eclipse approaches, many people are scrambling to make or change their plans — and weather is playing a large role by tossing out some unexpected curveballs. 

Advance planning is key, but many made travel reservations and booked flights for areas within the path of totality based on historic data about spring weather patterns.

Now, Mother Nature is doing a bit of a flip-flop, and areas typically experiencing cloud cover and inclement weather are clear, and the opposite is true for other parts of the country.

However, not all clouds will stick around on the big day. Shallow cumulus clouds largely dissipate even when just a fraction of the sun’s light is blocked, and new research has revealed why they don’t reform until after the eclipse has passed.

Eclipse mania may seem prevalent, but these celestial happenings can be a more spiritual and reflective experience for some, depending on religion or culture.

Hindus consider an eclipse a bad omen, while many Muslims view the phenomenon as a time for prayer and spiritual contemplation.

Meanwhile, some Christians have interpreted the temporary darkening of the sky as a sign that “end-times” are approaching.

And Navajos regard eclipses with solemnity, marking them as a time to show reverence and respect for the sun and Earth.


The final Columbia shuttle crew included (from left) NASA astronauts David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, and William McCool and Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Space Agency.

When Columbia lifted off on its maiden flight in 1981, it kicked off NASA’s space shuttle program and ushered in a new era of exploration. 

But nearly 22 years later, the aging shuttle’s 28th flight ended in disaster when it broke apart over east Texas, killing all seven crew members.

The tragedy marked the beginning of the end of the shuttle program. How did such a revolutionary idea go so wrong?

Explore new details that explain what ultimately led to disaster in a four-part CNN Original Series, “Space Shuttle Columbia: The Final Flight,” that premieres at 9 p.m. ET/PT Sunday.

Catch up on these fun reads before turning your focus to the eclipse:

— Scientists found a multitude of new species, including a sauntering Barbie-pink sea pig, during a deep-sea expedition 16,400 feet (5,000 meters) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

— The endangered Indochinese leopard and flat-headed cat are two of the wild felines that roam Malaysia’s tropical jungle. A new photo series features a rare glimpse at several of the notoriously elusive species.

— An Asian elephant bathed in sunlight, polar bears sparring and blue-footed boobies are just a few of the images featured in a fine-art photography sale inspired by the legacy of primatologist Jane Goodall, who turned 90 on Wednesday.

Like what you’ve read? Oh, but there’s more. Sign up here to receive in your inbox the next edition of Wonder Theory, brought to you by CNN Space and Science writers Ashley Strickland and Katie Hunt. They find wonder in planets beyond our solar system and discoveries from the ancient world.

*Any materials sent are subject to the following terms. I agree that CNN can use my photos/video (“Material”) on all CNN media, worldwide in perpetuity along with affiliate distribution. I also confirm that I am the exclusive owner and rights holder of the Material, did not create the Material using AI, and have all the necessary rights to authorize use of this Material at this URL.


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