NASA has unveiled plans for a ‘sounding rocket mission’ set to launch three rockets during this year’s solar eclipse on October 14. During the eclipse, viewers will witness the Sun dimming to just 10 percent of its usual brightness, leaving a brilliant “ring of fire” or sunlight as the Moon passes in front of the Sun. The project is spearheaded by Aroh Barjatya, an engineering physics professor of Indian origin at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Known as Atmospheric Perturbations around the Eclipse Path (APEP), the mission is focused on examining how the sudden reduction in sunlight impacts the Earth’s atmosphere.
The APEP team will execute a sequence of three rocket launches, with one occurring 35 minutes prior to the local peak of the eclipse, one during the eclipse, and another 35 minutes after. These launches will take place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with a specific focus on the ionosphere.
Aim: To study the ionosphere
According to NASA, the ionosphere’s temperature and density are projected to decrease during the eclipse, resulting in a wave-like disturbance that has the potential to disrupt GPS and other satellite communications. As emphasised by Barjatya, “All satellite communications go through the ionosphere before they reach Earth.”
He further underscores the growing reliance on space-based assets, stressing on the need to understand and model perturbations within the ionosphere. To illustrate the phenomenon, he adds, “It creates a wake immediately underneath and behind it, and then the water level momentarily goes up as it rushes back in.”
The APEP project extends beyond this mission, with plans to retrieve and relaunch of the rockets from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on April 8, 2024, during a total solar eclipse sweeping across the United States from Texas to Maine. This subsequent launch offers an opportunity to assess the broader effects of an eclipse, even though it will be positioned farther from the eclipse’s path compared to the October annular eclipse.
-The rockets will be positioned just outside the path of annularity, where the Moon moves directly in front of the Sun. Each rocket will deploy four small scientific instruments designed to record changes in electric and magnetic fields, density, and temperature.
-NASA’s goal is to achieve the first-ever simultaneous measurements from multiple locations in the ionosphere during a solar eclipse. According to Barjatya, rockets offer the best means of examining the vertical dimension at very fine spatial scales.
-Rockets can be launched precisely at the right moment and can investigate lower altitudes inaccessible to satellites. Sounding rockets were chosen by Barjatya and the team due to their ability to pinpoint and measure specific regions of space with great accuracy.
-These rockets can also record changes occurring at various altitudes as they ascend and descend from suborbital flights.
-The APEP rockets will gather data at altitudes ranging from 45 to 200 miles (70 to 325 kilometres) above the Earth’s surface along their flight path.