SWRI Team to Use Airborne Telescopes to Study Sun and Mercury During Total Solar Eclipse

EclipseA team led by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) will use airborne telescopes aboard NASA research aircraft to study the solar corona and Mercury’s surface during this summer’s total solar eclipse. The August 21 observations will provide the clearest images to date of the Sun’s outer atmosphere and attempt the first-ever “thermal images” of surface temperature variations on Mercury.

Total solar eclipses are unique opportunities for scientists to study the hot atmosphere above the Sun’s visible surface. The faint light from the corona is usually overpowered by intense emissions from the Sun itself. During a total eclipse, however, the Moon blocks the glare from the bright solar disk and darkens the sky, allowing the weaker coronal emissions to be observed.

“By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot. It’s millions of degrees Celsius, hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below,” said Dr. Amir Caspi, principal investigator of the project and a senior research scientist in SwRI’s Boulder, Colorado, office. “In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it’s important to better understand them.”

Why is the Sun’s outer atmosphere so much hotter than its surface? Perhaps the Sun’s magnetic field carries energy into the corona and converts it into heat. Or perhaps nanoflares or nanojets — explosions or eruptions too small and numerous to see individually — are constantly releasing small amounts of energy that combine to heat the entire corona. The team will use high-speed, high-definition video of the corona to look for fast, coherent motions that could help solve this puzzle. The project may also shed light on another question: why the magnetic structures in the corona are relatively smooth and stable.

“The magnetic field forms well organized loops and arcades in the lower corona, as well as large, fan-shaped structures extending out to many solar radii,” said Dr. Craig DeForest, a co-investigator also from SwRI’s Boulder office. “These structures are constantly being churned and tangled by the motion of the solar surface itself. So why does the corona always appear well organized, like a recently-coiffed head of hair, and not snarled or matted?”

From two of NASA’s WB-57 research aircraft, the team will observe the corona during the eclipse using stabilized telescopes with sensitive, high-speed, visible-light and infrared cameras at 50,000 feet. This high altitude provides distinct advantages over ground-based observations.

“Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth’s atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground,” said another SwRI co-investigator, Dr. Constantine Tsang. “This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over 7 minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just 2 minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground.”

These are the first astronomical observations for the WB-57s. Southern Research, which is located in Birmingham, Alabama, built the Airborne Imaging and Recording Systems onboard and is working with the scientific team to upgrade its DyNAMITE telescopes on both planes with solar filters and improved data recorders.

“This airborne platform also provides us with higher-quality, higher-speed images than are achievable from current or previous space-borne instruments,” said Caspi. “It highlights the potential of the WB-57 platform for future astronomical observations.”

Eclipse observations also give the team a unique opportunity to study Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun. Mercury is difficult to observe because it is usually washed out by the bright daytime sky, or distorted by the atmosphere near the horizon at twilight.

“We plan to measure Mercury in the infrared, in near darkness, and through very little atmosphere,” Tsang said. Scientists hope to use infrared measurements to calculate surface temperatures over the planet’s entire night side. “How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury’s soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters, something that has never been measured before.”

The SwRI-led team includes scientists from the University of Colorado, the National Center for Atmospheric Research High Altitude Observatory, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, as well as international colleagues at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and the Royal Observatory of Belgium. The team will make its data available to the public after the event. The team’s work will also be featured in two documentaries to air on eclipse day and in the fall of 2017.

Press Release from Southwest Research Institute

Media Invitation: Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience in Madras, Oregon

What: Lowell Observatory invites members of the media to attend the Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience (LOSEE), a two-day event celebrating the August 21 total solar eclipse.

When: LOSEE will take place on August 20 and 21, 2017.

Where: The Lowell Observatory Eclipse Expedition will take place at the Madras High School football field and adjoining Performing Arts Center in Madras, Oregon.

Event Description: This will be the first total solar eclipse to stretch across the United States, from the Pacific to Atlantic oceans, since 1918. To celebrate, Lowell Observatory astronomers and educators are hosting this two-day, education-focused event that includes presentations by astronomers and a star party on the evening of August 21, and eclipse viewing, science demonstrations, and astronomer presentations on August 21. Plus, the Science Channel will be broadcasting live from our event to its worldwide network of tens of millions of followers on television, social media, and its website.

Complimentary Press Registration: Lowell Observatory offers complimentary press registration to working journalists, broadcasters, PIOs, and other media professionals. While press registration is available at the event, we recommend pre-registering. This will not only allow us to better plan, but also gives you the opportunity to receive relevant information that we will periodically share up until eclipse day.

To register contact Molly Baker via email at

By Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory Historian

Astronomer Profile: Dr. Dave Schleicher

Note: Seven Lowell Observatory astronomers will participate in the 2017 Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience in Madras, Oregon on August 20-21. We will profile each in separate blogs. Today, we introduce Dr. Dave Schleicher.


Dave Schleicher earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 1983.

Research Interests

Dr. Schleicher’s major research interests include the physical properties, chemical composition, and behavior of comets. He began using Lowell telescopes in 1979 while a graduate student at Arizona State University and joined the Lowell staff in 1985.

Dr. Schleicher uses a variety of observational tools and theoretical modeling in his studies. In 1986, he co-discovered the periodic variability of Comet Halley—a discovery that profoundly affected the interpretation of other measurements of Halley, including those from the Giotto and Vega spacecraft. He has since obtained support observations for all other comets visited by the spacecraft.

Fun Fact

Dr. Schleicher’s interest in astronomy began before second grade while looking through a neighbor’s small telescope. This soon became his hobby but when he chose astronomy as a career, he realized he needed another hobby and took up photography. Today he is an accomplished photographer and has taken pictures around the world while traveling for telescope observing sessions or professional astronomy meetings.

Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience Activities

Dr. Schleicher will be on hand to talk about astronomy and answer questions about the cosmos.

By Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory Historian


Astronomers Without Borders Offers Giveaway Of Solar Viewing Glasses To Underserved Communities

Astronomers_Without_BordersAstronomers Without Borders (AWB) is excited to announce that in celebration of the upcoming August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse, it will be providing over 100,000 solar viewing glasses to underserved communities across the United States.

The donation recipients will be selected from deserving groups serving minority based-schools, youth community centers, children’s hospitals and others through an online registration process on the AWB website.

“This eclipse is historic, with a huge effort underway by organizations across the country to prepare people for the experience and use this rare opportunity to teach science,” said Mike Simmons, President and Founder of AWB. “We’re very pleased to be able to provide access to eclipse viewing to those who might otherwise miss out, thanks to the generosity of our sponsors.”

This large giveaway is made possible by the generous donations of glasses from AWB partners Google (50,000 glasses), Big Kid Science with an additional contribution from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (50,000 glasses) and the American Astronomical Society (3,200 Eclipse Megamovie project glasses).

On August 21, 2017, a stunning total eclipse of the Sun will sweep across the continental U.S. from coast to coast for the first time in nearly a century. While lucky skywatchers located along a narrow corridor running from Oregon to South Carolina will witness the dramatic total eclipse, everyone across the country will have an opportunity to see, with proper eye protection, at least a partial eclipse.

AWB also has solar glasses available for purchase to the general public. All proceeds from sales go directly to support AWB international grassroots science outreach programs.

To apply to receive the eclipse glasses, visit the AWB Glasses Giveaway page.

Press Release by Astronomers Without Borders

Astronomer Profile: Dr. Deidre Hunter

Note: Seven Lowell Observatory astronomers will participate in the 2017 Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience in Madras, Oregon on August 20-21. We will profile each in separate blogs. Today, we introduce Dr. Deidre Hunter.


Deidre Hunter earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona in 1975 and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Illinois in 1982.

Research Interests

Dr. Deidre HunterDr. Hunter’s primary scientific interest is tiny irregular galaxies—how they originate, evolve, and produce stars and star clusters, and how they are shaped. She held postdoctoral fellowships at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington before coming to Lowell Observatory in 1986.

Dr. Hunter also runs Lowell’s Navajo-Hopi Astronomy Outreach Program. This is a science enrichment and outreach program for 5 th – 8 th grade Navajo and Hopi teachers and their classes. The program pairs astronomers with teachers for one year. The astronomer visits the classroom throughout the year, leading astronomy discussions and hands-on activities in collaboration with the teacher. Largely due to her commitment to this long-running and innovative program, Hunter was awarded the American Astronomical Society’s prestigious Education Prize in 2014.

Fun Fact

Dr. Deidre HunterDr. Hunter and her husband (fellow Lowell astronomer Dr. Phil Massey) have backpacked in the Grand Canyon 21 times, the last three with their daughter. They have also rafted down the Colorado River on commercial trips twice, paddling the entire way, and will be taking their daughter on her first trip in the summer of 2017.

Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience Presentation

Date: Monday, August 21, 11 a.m.

Title: Tiny Galaxies and Baby Stars

Description: Dwarf irregular galaxies are the tiniest galaxies in the universe. Yet, they pose a problem by doing what people say they shouldn’t be able to do: make new stars.

By Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory Historian

“Totality by Big Kid Science” – Free App to Help Plan for The Great American Eclipse

Big Kid Science, an educational company founded by astrophysicist Dr. Jeffrey Bennett, has created a free, educational app to help people plan for the upcoming total solar eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017 — the first total solar eclipse visible from the continental United States in almost four decades.

Eclipse_ AppTotality by Big Kid Science, now available for iOS in the App Store, shows how much of an eclipse you can see at any location, along with the local times at which the eclipse begins, reaches maximum, and ends on August 21. It also uses GPS to show you what you’ll see at your current location and to tell you the nearest locations at which you can see a total solar eclipse. It even offers driving directions if you choose to travel to see totality. The app also includes additional information about how to view the eclipse safely, how eclipses work, activities for families and teachers, and much more.

Developed by Germinate LLC, Totality’s underlying code was provided by Xavier Jubier, creator of sophisticated eclipse maps, including his well-known interactive Google map for the August 21 eclipse.

The iOS version of Totality is now available; an Android version will follow in a few weeks. Though the app is free, there are links to donate to the creators’ favorite nonprofits supporting space/astronomy education: Story Time from Space, Voyage, Astronomers Without Borders, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

To support safe viewing of the eclipse, app creator Big Kid Science, with an additional contribution from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), is donating 100,000 eclipse glasses, including 50,000 to Astronomers Without Borders for distribution to underserved schools across U.S.; 20,000 to Denver Public Schools; and 22,000 to Idaho Falls Public Schools, plus 5,000 more for eclipse-day events in Idaho Falls. The same glasses can also be purchased directly through the app at a discounted price. The Shop screen also offers a code with which you can get a 30% discount on Big Kid Science books.

Press Release by Big Kid Science


Astronomer Profile: Dr. Michael West, Deputy Director for Science

Note: Seven Lowell Observatory astronomers will participate in the 2017 Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience in Madras, Oregon on August 20-21. We will profile each in separate blogs. Today, we introduce Dr. Michael West.


Michael West earned his PhD from Yale University in 1987.

Research Interests

Dr. Michael West’s research interests include star clusters, galaxy formation and evolution, clusters of galaxies, and the large-scale structure of the universe. One of his more fascinating areas of study focuses on galaxies that are devoured by larger cousins—so-called cannibal galaxies. He has carried out research on every continent except Antarctica and served as director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, head of science in Chile for the European Southern Observatory, head of science operations at the Gemini South Observatory, and a tenured professor of astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

Michael-WestDr. West is also active in astronomy education and outreach. He served as chief astronomy advisor for the ‘Imoloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, a $28 million facility that weaves together astronomy and Hawaiian culture into a compelling story of human exploration.

Dr. West is a gifted writer whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, and other publications. His most recent book, A Sky Wonderful with Stars: 50 Years of Modern Astronomy on Maunakea, has been nominated for the 2017 Ka Palapala Po’okela Awards that recognize “Hawaii’s finest books and their authors.”

Fun Fact

Dr. West has both Canadian and American citizenship, and says he can name all 13 provinces and territories, in addition to all 50 states, without ever once using the word “eh.”

Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience Presentation

Date: Monday, August 21, 1 p.m.

Title: Guided by the Night: Do Animals See the Stars?

Description: Humans aren’t the only animals that look to the heavens. Some animals use the stars to

guide their migrations. Others use them to find food. And some animals can’t see them at all.

By Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory Historian

Astronomer Profile: Dr. Jeff Hall, Observatory Director


Note: Seven Lowell Observatory astronomers will participate in the 2017 Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience in Madras, Oregon on August 20-21. We will profile each in separate blogs. Today, we introduce Jeff Hall, who also serves as Observatory director.


Jeff Hall earned a BA in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1986 and a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Pennsylvania State University in 1991.

Research Interests

Dr. Jeff Hall joined the Lowell Observatory staff in 1992 as a postdoctoral research fellow. He works with a team of other scientists on Lowell’s Solar-Stellar Spectrograph project, a long-term program involving monitoring of solar and stellar activity cycles, with the goal of lending an astronomical perspective to solar influences on terrestrial climate.

Dr. Hall has served as Lowell’s director since June 2010. He is the incoming chair of the American Astronomical Society’s standing committee on light pollution, space debris, and radio interference, and has played a leading role in dark-sky preservation efforts around Arizona.

In the Community

In the community, he serves as a member of Flagstaff’s leadership group, the Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance, and is former president of the Governing Board of Northland Preparatory Academy, a college-prep charter school, as well as of the Board of Directors of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra. His principal avocation is music and he has been the substitute organist for the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany as long as he has lived in Flagstaff.

Fun Fact


Dr. Hall is an avid bicyclist and for years has tracked his cycling progress by a system named after early 20th century astrophysicist and biking enthusiast Arthur Eddington, who devised the scheme. The so-called Eddington Number (which Eddington was far too modest to call it himself) is defined as “the largest integer n, such that one had cycled at least n miles on n different days”. Hall’s current Eddington Number is 36.

Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience Presentations

Date: Sunday, August 20, 6 p.m.; Monday, August 21, 7 a.m.

Title: What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Eclipse

Description: Circumstances of eclipses, what we see when one happens, what we learn about the Sun (and other stars) from eclipses.

Astronomer Profile: Dr. Gerard van Belle

Andrew Holt Frazier

Note: Seven Lowell Observatory astronomers will participate in the 2017 Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience in Madras, Oregon on August 20-21. We will profile each in separate blogs. Today, we introduce Dr. Gerard van Belle.


Gerard van Belle received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Whitman College in 1990, a master’s in physics from The Johns Hopkins University in 1993, and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wyoming in 1996.

Research Interests
Andrew Holt Frazier

Dr. van Belle has been on the Lowell Observatory faculty since August of 2011. He builds and uses the highest-resolution optical telescopes available on the planet to learn about the sizes, shapes, and surfaces of stars. These parameters tell us about the internal structure and evolution of stars, information which is essential to understanding new planets being discovered around nearby stars. Dr. van Belle has also applied high-resolution, high-precision astronomical techniques to detect such planets and map the surfaces of stars.

He was recently named the director of the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI), a project operated in partnership by Lowell, the Naval Research Lab (NRL), and the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO). Before working at Lowell, he served as an instrument scientist for the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) facility in Chile and an instrument architect for NASA’s Keck Interferometer in Hawaii.

Fun Fact

In the August 12, 2014 issue of Esquire magazine, Dr. van Belle was featured as one of 22 men who are redefining style across America.

Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience Presentations

Date: Sunday, August 20, 8 p.m.

Title: An Explosion of Exoplanets: How Microscopic Eclipses have led to Detections of Nearby Worlds

Description: Twenty years of detecting planets orbiting other stars will be discussed, with the

vast majority of them being found to date via shadows in the light.

Date: Monday, August 21, 2 p.m.

Title: The Pluto Vote: One Astronomer’s Personal Story.

Description: While Dr. van Belle does not study Pluto, he was on hand at the International Astronomical Union’s 2006 meeting during which Pluto was kicked out of the Sun’s family of planets. His accidental involvement makes for an amusing story.

By Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory Historian

Total Eclipse of the Sun to be Commemorated on a Forever Stamp

The U.S. Postal Service will soon release a first-of-its-kind stamp that changes when you touch it. The Total Solar Eclipse Forever stamp, which commemorates the August 21 eclipse, transforms into an image of the Moon from the heat of a finger. The public is asked to share the news on social media using the hashtag #EclipseStamps.

Eclipse Stamp

Tens of millions of people in the United States hope to view this rare event, which has not been seen on the U.S. mainland since 1979. The eclipse will travel a narrow path across the entire country for the first time since 1918. The path will run west to east from Oregon to South Carolina and will include portions of 14 states.

The June 20, 1:30 p.m. MT First-Day-of-Issue ceremony will take place at the Art Museum of the University of Wyoming (UW) in Laramie. The University is celebrating the summer solstice on June 20. Prior to the event, visitors are encouraged to arrive at 11:30 a.m. to witness a unique architectural feature where a single beam of sunlight shines on a silver dollar embedded in the floor, which occurs at noon on the summer solstice in the UW Art Museum’s Rotunda Gallery.

The back of the stamp pane provides a map of the August 21 eclipse path and times it may appear in some locations.

Thermochromic Ink

The stamp image is a photograph taken by astrophysicist Fred Espenak, aka Mr. Eclipse, of Portal, AZ, that shows a total solar eclipse seen from Jalu, Libya, on March 29, 2006.

In the first U.S. stamp application of thermochromic ink, the total solar eclipse stamps will reveal a second image. Using the body heat of your thumb or fingers and rubbing the eclipse image will reveal an underlying image of the Moon (Espenak also took the photograph of the full Moon). The image reverts back to the eclipse once it cools.

Thermochromic inks are vulnerable to UV light and should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible to preserve this special effect. To help ensure longevity, the Postal Service will be offering a special envelope to hold and protect the stamp pane for a nominal fee.

A total eclipse of the Sun occurs when the Moon completely blocks the visible solar disk from view, casting a shadow on Earth. The 70-mile-wide shadow path of the eclipse, known as the “path of totality,” will traverse the country diagonally, appearing first in Oregon (mid-morning local time) and exiting some 2,500 miles east and 90 minutes later off the coast of South Carolina (mid-afternoon local time).

A total solar eclipse provides us with the only chance to see the Sun’s corona — its extended outer atmosphere — without specialized instruments. During the total phase of an eclipse the corona appears as a gossamer white halo around the black disk of the Moon, resembling the petals of a flower reaching out into space.

Art director Antonio Alcalá of Alexandria, VA, designed the stamp.

The Total Eclipse of the Sun stamp is being issued as a Forever stamp, which is always equal in value to the current First-Class Mail 1-ounce price.

Press Release by the United States Postal Service