NASA Armstrong holds workshop on Solar Eclipse

Photograph by Linda KC Reynolds

Dr. Eric Becklin, SOFIA Chief Scientific Adviser, holds up Nebula and shares his experience working with SOFIA and studying the galaxy during an educational workshop hosted by NASA Armstrong Research Center at Palmdale’s AERO Institute.

Where will you be on Aug. 21, 2017?

Depending on the time of day, NASA is betting that most in America will be outside experiencing a total solar eclipse, which occurs when the moon lines up perfectly in front of the sun, completely blocking the sun from our view.

Aug. 21 will be the first total solar eclipse in the continental United States since 1979, almost 40 years ago. However, to be in a total eclipse one must be directly within the “Path of Totality,” otherwise you will only experience a partial eclipse.

The entire continent will experience a partial eclipse lasting two to three hours. Halfway through the event, anyone within a roughly 70-mile-wide path from Salem, Ore., to Charleston, S.C., will experience a brief total eclipse, when the moon completely blocks the sun for up to two minutes and 40 seconds.

“The Greeks were the first to study our first natural satellite — the moon,” explained Dr. Barbara Buckner, NASA Armstrong education specialist, to a room full of educators during a NASA Solar Eclipse workshop at the AERO Institute in Palmdale, Calif. Workshops encourage teachers to inspire students in STEM education.

With special glasses or a pinhole projection project, teachers can show students how to view the eclipse without damaging their eyes. Observing an eclipse also opens the door to study radiation, light waves, space travel, black holes and telescopes.

Buckner shared that the sun is approximately 4.6 billion years old and halfway through its life cycle. To reach the sun that is 93 million miles away, you could travel non-stop at 60 miles per hour for 175 years. The sun is so big that 109 planets the size of Earth could fit inside.

Studying the sun helps scientists to predict space weather, radiation from the sun that can cause interference in electronics or disrupt satellite communication and to forecast the safest time for astronauts to avoid radiation on spacewalks.

NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory in 2010, one of the largest solar observing spacecraft ever put into orbit. Cameras on the craft have taken millions of images of the sun using six cameras and 10 different filters. These photos will help scientists learn more about energetic particles and radiation that are released by the sun.

Dr. Barbara Buckner, NASA Armstrong education specialist, holds up a pair of inexpensive glasses that can be used to view the total eclipse of the sun which will occur Aug. 21, 2017. Buckner holds workshops to encourage educators to inspire students in STEM. Classes are free and open to all who educate children.

“The amount of information we receive from SDO is overwhelming compared to what we had prior to that,” said Buckner. “Each photo has pixels that would make it 5 feet by 5 feet — that’s better than HD quality on your big screen TV!”

Special guest speaker Dr. Eric Becklin, SOFIA Chief Scientific Adviser, said there is nothing like a total solar eclipse. “If at all possible, it is something you must experience.”

SOFIA has a 2.5mm telescope, just slightly bigger than the Hubble Telescope. Becklin said the United States was responsible for procuring and modifying SOFIA’s Boeing 747 platform, while Germany was responsible for building the telescope.

SOFIA flies in the stratosphere to avoid most of the water within our atmosphere, which enables the telescope to see near-, mid- and far-infrared waves that would otherwise be blocked from view. Approximately 400 flights have been flown on SOFIA to study astronomical objects and phenomena such as planets, comets, asteroids, nebulae, black holes, star birth and death, and the formation of new solar systems.

When a star (not the sun) goes behind a planet, we can learn about the atmosphere of the planet by measuring how the radiation disappears and reappears. On SOFIA the FLITECAM, HIPO occultation camera and the Focal Plane Camera can operate simultaneously by use of dichroic beam splitters, to determine what a planet or star is made of, explained Becklin.

Visit to view a gallery of SOFIA science images.