During ‘Ring of Fire’ Solar Eclipse, Embry-Riddle’s Dr. Aroh Barjatya Leads NASA Rocket Mission
When the moon partially blocks the sun, creating a spectacular “ring of fire,” or annular solar eclipse, on Oct. 14, 2023, Dr. Aroh Barjatya of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University will blast three scientific rockets into space.
Barjatya, a professor of Engineering Physics and director of the Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Lab (SAIL) at Embry-Riddle, designed the multi-institution NASA rocket mission to learn more about changes in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that can affect communication in the air and on the ground.
From New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, Barjatya’s team plans to launch three data-gathering or “sounding” rockets in rapid succession — before, during and after the eclipse. Each solid, two-stage rocket, spanning about 53 feet from tail to tip, will zoom over Route 70 and soar up to 350 kilometers into the ionosphere. Each rocket’s main payload will also dispatch four sub-payloads of highly sensitive scientific instruments into space.
Barjatya expects to recover and relaunch the three main payloads atop new rocket motors, and with new sub-payloads, during the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.
Understanding how an eclipse sets off a unique pattern of atmospheric waves in the ionosphere is a key goal for Barjatya and colleagues. The Embry-Riddle team includes professor of Engineering Physics Dr. Matthew Zettergren; research scientists Dr. Robert Clayton and Dr. Shantanab Debchoudhury; Ph.D. students Rachel Conway, Henry Valentine and Nathan Graves; master’s degree students Peter Ribbens, Joshua Milford and Jonas Rowan; and undergraduate students Megan Soll, Johnathan Bizzano and Maddox Morrison.
When the sun slips below the horizon or an eclipse pushes shadowy ribbons across the Earth, highly charged ions and electrons rapidly recombine in the ionosphere — an atmospheric layer located 37-190 miles above the Earth that serves as a conduit for communication signals. Every day, the setting sun triggers changes to the ionosphere’s temperature, density and chemical composition. The ionosphere’s total electron content changes. Like a tide, the density of plasma drops as the sun sets and increases as the sun rises.
Master's student Peter Ribbens (center) and undergraduate Megan Soll pose in Embry-Riddle's Space and Atmospheric Instrumentation Lab (SAIL), with payloads to be launched on high-altitude balloons. (Photo: Embry-Riddle/Bernard Wilchusky)
During an eclipse, however, these perturbations happen more quickly and within the specific region where the eclipse reaches its peak.
The resulting disturbance churns up atmospheric waves.
“Think of the ionosphere as the surface of a pond,” Barjatya suggests. “There are already ripples happening. Now, imagine a motorboat suddenly ripping through that water. The boat creates waves all around it. The water level dips, below and right behind it, and then rises above the background level for a brief time as it rushes back in. That’s what an eclipse does to the ionosphere, except in three dimensions.”
When viewed through protective glasses on Earth, a solar eclipse may seem to be serene, but in fact, the event propels a shadow at speeds up to 1,100 miles per hour. All that energy rocks the atmosphere, potentially affecting communications with satellites that move through the ionosphere.
Given the accelerating pace of space enterprise and exploration, Barjatya noted, “We need to understand and therefore model all perturbations and irregularities in the ionosphere.”
APEP Sounding Rocket Mission
To study the annular eclipse, researchers at Embry-Riddle and Dartmouth College built instruments for the sounding rocket mission, which Barjatya calls APEP, for “Atmospheric Perturbations around the Eclipse Path.” The name was inspired by a giant mythological snake called Apep that chased the sun god Ra in ancient Egyptian lore — an event deemed responsible for causing eclipses.
At intervals of approximately 35 minutes, Barjatya’s team will fire three rockets over New Mexico to capture atmospheric data while the eclipse is underway. Each of the rockets will deploy scientific instruments to measure density and temperature as well as changes in electric and magnetic fields. In this way, the Embry-Riddle researchers hope to capture essential data across multiple points in space and over time while the eclipse is happening — a scientific first.
For additional insights, ground-based measurements will be captured by research collaborators from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Kirtland Air Force Base. Using instruments called ionosondes and a meteor wind radar, the AFRL-Kirtland team will assess plasma density and neutral wind beneath the central path of the eclipse. Farther from the center, collaborators at the MIT Haystack Observatory will leverage radar to evaluate perturbations in the ionosphere hundreds of miles from the eclipse path.
In addition, Embry-Riddle researchers will launch specifically developed high-altitude balloons every 20 minutes for several hours, reaching altitudes of 100,000 feet, to study how meteorological conditions change during an eclipse.
Megan Soll, an undergraduate student in Engineering Physics from South Africa, will take part in the balloon study. “Building the balloon sondes was a great hands-on experience with software and hardware integration,” Soll said. “It has given me a deeper appreciation for the nuances and connection between the two sides of payload development that I have not been able to get simply via my coursework.”
Finally, Dr. Matthew Zettergren at Embry-Riddle will work on modeling and simulating eclipse-induced ionospheric dynamics with colleagues at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“Many of the physical processes associated with a solar eclipse have rather unpredictable effects on the propagation of radiowaves, including refraction and scattering across some frequency bands,” Zettergren said. “APEP will make new measurements of such structures, in the regions where these effects are expected, that allow us to develop a better understanding of their impacts on communication and geolocation.”
The APEP sounding rocket mission is part of NASA’s Heliophysics Big Year. Dr. Peter Hoffman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus, will travel to White Sands to witness the event.
Barjatya and colleagues plan to relaunch their APEP payloads from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, during the total eclipse next spring.
With an eclipse, Barjatya noted, the stakes are high because of the limited time window for the event. For example, if winds exceed certain levels, the Embry-Riddle team won’t be able to launch rockets.
Whatever the outcome, however, students will gain invaluable knowledge and skills. “All of our missions are designed with undergraduate and graduate students acting as the engineers and scientists,” Barjatya said. “Students get to design the instrument. They get to fly the instruments and analyze the data after the flight. Those are highly marketable skills that will serve our graduates well as they embark on their careers.”
Nathan Graves, a Ph.D. student in Engineering Physics, said, “Working in SAIL since my undergraduate years has given me incredible experience in a range of science and engineering objectives, from space situational awareness satellite tracking/observations to space plasma measurements.”
Graves added, “For SAIL’s in-situ missions, my main responsibility has been developing and maintaining firmware for 10 instruments across five sounding rocket campaigns and a mission to Mars. For the upcoming launches, I am excited to see what we can learn about the dynamic ionosphere around an eclipse path using our instruments that have been fine-tuned with experience from our previous flights on Endurance, SpEED Demon and VortEx launches.”
In a separate development, at Embry-Riddle’s Prescott, Arizona, campus, undergraduate students were selected by NASA to take part in the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project. Using weather balloons, the students will capture real-time data during the annular eclipse as well as the upcoming total eclipse.
To view a solar eclipse safely, always use solar-filtering glasses. The American Astronomical Society provides a list of manufacturers that offer glasses that meet safety standards.
Additional NASA information about the Embry-Riddle rocket mission can be found online here.