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Five Eclipses in NASA History

Five Eclipses in NASA History

On Monday, August 21, 2017, people in North America will have the chance to see an eclipse of the Sun. Anyone within the path of totality may see one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights – a total solar eclipse. 

Along this path, the Moon will completely cover the Sun, revealing the Sun’s tenuous atmosphere, the corona. The path of totality will stretch from Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina. Observers outside this path will still see a partial solar eclipse, where the Moon covers part of the Sun’s disk. Remember: you can never look at the Sun directly, and an eclipse is no exception – be sure to use a solar filter or indirect viewing method to watch partial phases of the eclipse.

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Total solar eclipses are a rare chance to study the Sun and Earth in unique ways. During the total eclipse, scientists can observe the faintest regions of the Sun, as well as study the Sun’s effects on Earth’s upper atmosphere. We’ve been using eclipses to learn more about our solar system for more than 50 years. Let’s take a look back at five notable eclipses of the past five decades.

May 30, 1965

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A total eclipse crossed the Pacific Ocean on May 30, 1965, starting near the northern tip of New Zealand and ending in Peru. Totality – when the Moon blocks all of the Sun’s face – lasted for 5 minutes and 15 seconds at peak, making this the 3rd-longest solar eclipse totality in the 20th century. Mexico and parts of the Southwestern United States saw a partial solar eclipse, meaning the Moon only blocked part of the Sun. We sent scientists to the path of totality, stationing researchers on South Pacific islands to study the response of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere to the eclipse. 

Additionally, our high-flying jets, scientific balloons, and sounding rockets – suborbital research rockets that fly and collect data for only a few minutes – recorded data in different parts of the atmosphere. A Convair 990 research jet chased the Moon’s shadow as it crossed Earth’s surface, extending totality up to more than nine minutes, and giving scientists aboard more time to collect data. A NASA-funded team of researchers will use the same tactic with two jets to extend totality to more than 7 minutes on Aug. 21, 2017, up from the 2 minutes and 40 seconds observable on the ground. 

March 7, 1970

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The total solar eclipse of March 7, 1970, was visible in North America and the northwestern part of South America, with totality stretching to 3 minutes and 28 seconds at maximum. This was the first time a total eclipse in the United States passed over a permanent rocket launch facility – NASA’s Wallops Station (now Wallops Flight Facility) on the coast of Virginia. This eclipse offered scientists from NASA, four universities and seven other research organizations a unique way to conduct meteorology, ionospheric and solar physics experiments using 32 sounding rockets. 

Also during this eclipse, the Space Electric Propulsion Test, or SERT, mission temporarily shut down because of the lack of sunlight. The experimental spacecraft was unable to restart for two days.

July 10, 1972

Two years later, North America saw another total solar eclipse. This time, totality lasted 2 minutes and 36 seconds at the longest. A pair of scientists from Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, traveled to the Canadian tundra to study the eclipse – specifically, a phenomenon called shadow bands. These are among the most ephemeral phenomena that observers see during the few minutes before and after a total solar eclipse. They appear as a multitude of faint rapidly moving bands that can be seen against a white background, such as a large piece of paper on the ground. 

While the details of what causes the bands are not completely understood, the simplest explanation is that they arise from atmospheric turbulence. When light rays pass through eddies in the atmosphere, they are refracted, creating shadow bands.

February 26, 1979

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The last total solar eclipse of the 20th century in the contiguous United States was in early 1979. Totality lasted for a maximum of 2 minutes 49 seconds, and the total eclipse was visible on a narrow path stretching from the Pacific Northwest to Greenland. Agencies from Canada and the United States – including NASA – joined forces to build a sounding rocket program to study the atmosphere and ionosphere during the eclipse by observing particles on the edge of space as the Sun’s radiation was suddenly blocked.

July 31, 1981

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The USSR got a great view of the Moon passing in front of the Sun in the summer of 1981, with totality lasting just over 2 minutes at maximum. Our scientists partnered with Hawaiian and British researchers to study the Sun’s atmosphere – specifically, a relatively thin region called the chromosphere, which is sandwiched between the Sun’s visible surface and the corona – using an infrared telescope aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. The chromosphere appears as the red rim of the solar disk during a total solar eclipse, whereas the corona has no discernible color to the naked eye.

Watch an Eclipse: August 21, 2017 

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On August 21, a total solar eclipse will cross the continental United States from coast to coast for the first time in 99 years, and you can watch.

If skies are clear, people in North America will be able to see a partial or total solar eclipse. Find out what the eclipse will look like in your area, then make sure you have a safe method to watch – like solar viewing glasses or a pinhole projector – and head outside. 

You can also tune into nasa.gov/eclipselive throughout the day on Aug. 21 to see the eclipse like you’ve never seen it before – including a NASA TV show, views from our spacecraft, aircraft, and more than 50 high-altitude balloons.

Get all your eclipse information at https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/, and follow along with @NASASun on Twitter and NASA Sun Science on Facebook.

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