IN AUGUST 2017, scientists sailed a boat off South Carolina equipped with a weather balloon. The plan was to float it above the clouds for a guaranteed view of an impending total solar eclipse. Then, a terrible storm struck. “They were mostly trying to keep the boat from capsizing,” says Angela Des Jardins, a physicist at Montana State University who leads the Nationwide Eclipse Ballooning Project.
The team behind this project had launched 55 balloons across the US in total. As these popped and parachuted back to Earth, many got caught in trees. It took weeks to get them back. “This time,” says Des Jardins, “we’re giving everyone a special tree pole.”
After a six-year wait, the next total solar eclipse over the US is almost here. First comes a practice run. On 14 October, an annular solar eclipse will see almost all of the sun blocked by the moon, leaving just a “ring of fire”. Then, on 8 April 2024, the real deal arrives – a total eclipse visible over a narrow strip of North America.
The latter offers a chance to see part of the sun usually hidden from view: its wispy, mysterious outer atmosphere, known as the corona. This is the birthplace of the solar wind that travels through our patch of space, sometimes causing aurorae and disrupting satellites. But we understand very little about it. The coming eclipses offer a unique, if fleeting, opportunity to study it. Over the past few years, researchers have been …