AUSTIN (KXAN) — “Earth actually lives in the atmosphere of the sun,” Eric Christian, deputy laboratory director at NASA’s Heliospheric Laboratory, said during a Zoom call March 8. A month before the total solar eclipse that would soon be over in the United States, Christian was excited about the opportunity to explore the center of our solar system: the sun.

During the eclipse, our moon will block all light emitted directly from our local star. The sun’s lower atmosphere becomes visible to the naked eye.

“You can see the faint atmosphere that you normally can’t see when the sun is shining because the sun is just too bright,” Christian said.

Understanding the Sun’s atmosphere is just as important as understanding our own. The sun creates “space weather” that disrupts our communications and causes other problems on Earth.

“The sun’s atmosphere is really funny because it’s hot,” but the sun’s surface is cool. It only heats up to about 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere around the sun has a temperature of several million degrees and scientists don’t know why.

“Near the sun, this atmosphere heats up and accelerates. And that’s exactly where the action happens. That’s why we want to study there,” said Christian.

Studying the sun with a solar eclipse

The solar eclipse gives scientists a glimpse into this atmosphere. When the surface is obscured by the Moon, the Sun’s atmosphere becomes more visible. Electrons bulge across the surface and form networks. Storms come to life and explode from patches of sun on the surface.

NASA normally uses artificial eclipses to study these events. Black disks on telescopes block out the light. Unfortunately, these disks must be larger than the Sun to reduce the risk of damaging the telescope. This makes it difficult to see the surface.

The moon is just the right distance and size to just obscure the surface of the sun. It is also the only moon in the solar system to do this. In fact, Earth is the only planet where total solar eclipses occur.

“With a satellite you can’t get more than a few meters away. Since the moon is 240,000 miles away. This is a perfect opportunity to be very, very close to the sun,” said Christian.

Other science during the solar eclipse

Solar observations are just one of the events. Citizen science, also called participatory science, puts science in the hands of people across the country.

“Students will release balloons into the upper atmosphere to study the temperature and what happens to the atmosphere as the shadow passes over it,” Christian said.

These experiments will allow us to better understand not only the Sun’s atmosphere, but also our own.

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