Indian American scientist leads NASA mission to launch sounding rockets during solar eclipse

Aroh Barjatya, inspects the subpayloads that eject from the rocket mid-flight. The subpayloads carry the plasma density, neutral density, and magnetic field sensors. PHOTO: NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility/Berit Bland

On April 8, 2024, during the solar eclipse that traversed the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted a unique mission called Atmospheric Perturbations around Eclipse Path (APEP) by launching three Black Brant IX sounding rockets to investigate “the disturbances in the ionosphere created when the Moon eclipses the Sun.”

That mission was led by Professor of Engineering Physics at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, Dr. Aroh Barjatya, who directs the Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Lab.

NASA’s APEP mission took place at its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia

Aroh Barjatya, at the top center, with the three APEP sounding rockets and the support team after successful assembly. PHOTO: NASA/Berit Bland
Three Black Brant IX sounding rockets launching from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia on April 8, 2024. PHOTO: NASA/Garon Clark

The sounding rockets were launched “at three different times: 45 minutes before, during, and 45 minutes after the peak local eclipse” in Virginia said a NASA statement adding “These intervals are important to collect data on how the Sun’s sudden disappearance affects the ionosphere, creating disturbances that have the potential to interfere with our communications.”

The ionosphere refers to a layer in Earth’s atmosphere situated at an altitude ranging from 55 to 310 miles (90 to 500 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. “It’s an electrified region that reflects and refracts radio signals, and also impacts satellite communications as the signals pass through,” said Barjatya in the statement. “Understanding the ionosphere and developing models to help us predict disturbances is crucial to making sure our increasingly communication-dependent world operates smoothly.”

During the October 2023 annular solar eclipse, these rockets were launched and successfully retrieved from White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. They have since been upgraded with new instrumentation for the latest APEP mission. The rockets are projected to reach a peak altitude of 260 miles (420 kilometers) and will assess charged and neutral particle density as well the electric and magnetic fields in their vicinity, noted the statement.

“Each rocket will eject four secondary instruments the size of a two-liter soda bottle that also measure the same data points, so it’s similar to results from fifteen rockets, while only launching three,” explained Barjatya before the mission commenced.

Besides launching these rockets, numerous teams throughout the United States also gathered data on the ionosphere using different methods. For instance, a group of students from Embry-Riddle deployed a series of high-altitude balloons.

Since the contiguous United States won’t witness another total solar eclipse until 2044, and the next annular eclipse won’t occur until 2046, Barjatya noted in another NASA statement, “We have to make hay while the Sun shines … or, I suppose for eclipse science, while it doesn’t” adding “In all seriousness though, this data set will reveal the widespread effects that eclipses have on the ionosphere at the smallest spatial scales.”

The sunlight quickly disappears and then reappears in a small area of the landscape during a solar eclipse. This sudden change causes a rapid drop and then increase in ionospheric temperature and density creating waves that ripple through the ionosphere.

“If you think of the ionosphere as a pond with some gentle ripples on it, the eclipse is like a motorboat that suddenly rips through the water,” Barjatya added. “It creates a wake immediately underneath and behind it, and then the water level momentarily goes up as it rushes back in.”

Pointing out the 2017 total solar eclipse in North America where instruments detected atmospheric changes many hundreds of miles beyond the eclipse’s path, Barjatya further said, “All satellite communications go through the ionosphere before they reach Earth. As we become more dependent on space-based assets, we need to understand and model all perturbations in the ionosphere.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here