Plane gives good view, not images

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  • Published 23.07.09

New Delhi, July 22: Sitting at the edge of the open ramp of an air force plane, tethered to a belt and inhaling oxygen from a canister, Shibu Mathew marvelled at the darkened solar orb more than he did meaningful science.

As the AN-32 transport plane flew eastward over northern India, at an altitude of about 25,000ft, the bright blue sky abruptly darkened, heralding the start of the total solar eclipse.

“It was really beautiful,” said Mathew, an astronomer from the Udaipur Solar Observatory who flew along with a team of scientists trying to capture images of the eclipse from above the clouds. “The solar corona looked like a bright ring around the darkened sun against a black sky.”

But the motion of the aircraft and the vibrations during the flight prevented the Udaipur team from collecting images good enough for scientific research. “We saw the eclipse, but we couldn’t record much data,” said P. Venkatkrishnan, director of the observatory.

The inability to extract research-quality images from the air and the washout in Taregna near Patna — another site where scientists had congregated — has meant that India’s science of today’s eclipse will bank largely on data that Indian teams will bring from a site in eastern China.

Researchers from the Udaipur observatory and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAP), Bangalore, have been in China over the past week preparing for the eclipse.

“A preliminary analysis shows we’ve got very good quality data,” Siraj Hasan, IIAP director, told The Telegraph from the eclipse camp at Anji in Shanghai province.

The total eclipse that began over the Gulf of Cambay at about 6.23am today moved eastward creating a belt-shaped zone that passed Surat, Indore, Bhopal, Varanasi and Patna before moving into China, and curving eastward into Japan and the Pacific Ocean.

The eclipse was visible for 5 minutes and 38 seconds over Anji compared with a little less than four minutes over sites in India.

Virtually all of total solar eclipse research is aimed at gathering data about the solar corona — the super-hot material above and around the solar surface.

Scientists are hoping that their data on coronal brightness and oscillations will allow them to resolve a puzzle about the sun: how does the corona get heated to a million degrees or higher when the solar surface is only about 6,000°C?

One of the IIAP team’s images reveals fine plume-like structures at the solar poles. A combination of the images and analysis of the light emitted by the corona may provide information about the heating mechanisms.

But the flights aboard the AN-32 and another IAF plane, a Mirage 2000, enabled the scientists to take spectacular images of the eclipse. The Mirage 2000 flew at 40,000ft.