On October 14, a celestial spectacle will unfold as the Sun dims to a mere 10 percent of its usual brilliance, casting a radiant “ring of fire” across the skies of North and South America during the annular eclipse.
However, amidst this captivating event, observers near New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range will witness more than just the eclipse; they will see three rockets hurtling toward the phenomenon, launched by NASA.
NASA’s upcoming sounding rocket mission, known as Atmospheric Perturbations around the Eclipse Path (APEP), aims to unravel the mysteries of how the sudden reduction in sunlight during an eclipse impacts the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Specifically, APEP focuses on the ionosphere, the ionized region of the atmosphere situated between 48 kilometers to 965 kilometers above sea level.
The ionosphere plays a crucial role in our planet’s atmospheric dynamics. It is the region where the Sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation energizes and separates electrons from atoms, creating ions and free electrons.
Normally, the constant influx of solar energy prevents these particles, which are mutually attracted, from recombining throughout the day.
However, during a solar eclipse, as the Sun dips below the horizon, this delicate balance can shift.
During the 2017 total solar eclipse visible in North America, numerous instruments, even those far from the eclipse’s path, detected significant atmospheric changes.
These disruptions also impacted critical infrastructure like GPS and communication satellites, which rely on the ionosphere for signal transmission.
As our reliance on space-based assets continues to grow, understanding and modeling disturbances in the ionosphere becomes increasingly crucial.
NASA’s APEP Mission: Probing the Eclipse’s Effects
The APEP mission is designed to address these questions by launching three rockets, each carrying four small scientific instruments.
These instruments will measure parameters such as density, temperature, and variations in electric and magnetic fields.
The mission’s timeline is meticulously coordinated, with the first rocket launching approximately 35 minutes before the eclipse’s peak, the second during the peak, and the third launching about 35 minutes after the peak.
By collecting data during these critical eclipse phases, APEP aims to shed light on how the sudden drop in sunlight affects the ionosphere.
This knowledge will enhance our understanding of the ionosphere’s behavior during celestial events and its broader implications for satellite communication, navigation, and our ever-evolving dependence on space-based technologies.
Source: Indian Express