Scientists probe how an eclipse affects Earth’s atmosphere | Science News for Students

Scientists probe how an eclipse affects Earth’s atmosphere

Using smartphones and radio kits, people will track how radio waves move through the ionosphere
Aug 21, 2017 — 6:55 am EST
Earth atmosphere

Sunlight strips electrons from atoms in Earth’s atmosphere. This process creates a charged layer called the ionosphere. But during a solar eclipse, all of that stops.


The moon’s shadow will race across North America today. And as that happens, hundreds of radio enthusiasts will turn on their receivers — rain or shine. They will be listening for changes due to eclipse effects on a shell of electrons hundreds of kilometers (miles) overhead. That shell is responsible for heavenly light shows, GPS navigation and all earthly existence. And a solar eclipse offers a great opportunity to study that shell.

A part of the upper atmosphere absorbs a type of radiation from the sun known as extreme ultraviolet light. That absorption prevents this radiation from harming life on Earth. But this energy does alter the upper atmosphere. That extreme ultraviolet light strips electrons from — ionizes — atoms and molecules high above Earth’s surface. Indeed, it creates a zone full of ions. These include free-floating negatively charged electrons and the positively charged atoms or molecules to which they had once belonged. The area where this takes place is known as the ionosphere (Eye-ON-oh-sfeer). Ranging from 75 to 1,000 kilometers (47 to 620 miles) up, this zone warps some signals passing through it.

“The ionosphere is the reason life exists on this planet,” notes Joshua Semeter. Its filtering of the extreme ultraviolet light’s harmful rays protects life on the ground, explains this physicist at Boston University in Massachusetts.

The ionosphere also is a stage for brilliant displays, such as the aurora borealis (or northern lights). This light show appears when charged material in interplanetary space skims the atmosphere. And the ionosphere is important for predicting the accuracy of GPS signals. It also plays a role in radio communication.

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aurora ISS
This is an aurora borealis as seen from the International Space Station. Auroras are caused by the solar wind hitting Earth's atmosphere.

But at night — or during a solar eclipse — the ionosphere stops ionizing. Electrons start to rejoin the atoms and molecules they had formerly abandoned. This neutralizes their electrical charge. With fewer free electrons bouncing around, the ionosphere reflects radio waves differently. It acts like a distorted mirror.

Scientists had known this happens, but not precisely how. The way that the ionosphere changes at dusk and dawn involves factors other than just sunlight. And these extra factors, such as temperature or the angle of sunlight, might also affect the observations. The eclipse  gives researchers a chance, instead, to watch in almost real time that charging and uncharging process.

“The eclipse lets us look at the change from light to dark to light again very quickly,” notes Jill Nelson. She is an electrical engineer at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Delving deeper into the eclipse effect

Joseph Huba and Douglas Drob are scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. They have just predicted some of what should happen to the ionosphere during this year’s eclipse.

Work during earlier eclipses showed that this part of the atmosphere does not simply die down and then ramp back up again. It takes a while for all of those electrons to rejoin their atoms (or let go again in sunlight). The way the ionization changes during an eclipse seems to depend on its distance from the moon’s shadow.

At higher altitudes, the free electrons’ temperature should decrease by 15 percent, Huba and Drob now propose. Between 150 and 350 kilometers (90 and 220 miles) up, there will be a different change. Here, the density of free-floating electrons should drop by up to half as they rejoin atoms, the scientists say. This should create a magnetic disturbance that would travel along Earth’s magnetic field lines. If true, they say, that eclipse-induced ripple in the ionosphere might be detectable as far away as the tip of South America!

They described their new calculations in the July 17 Geophysical Research Letters.

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The ionosphere is a layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that reacts strongly to solar activity. This layer gives off a red-green glow when solar rays strike it and strip electrons off of atoms. This video shows this airglow as seen from the International Space Station.
NASA Goddard

Eclipse Mob is one project that will look at how the 2017 eclipse affects Earth’s atmosphere. Nelson and her colleagues will use volunteers around the United States for the project. Each will send in data on how the ionosphere responds when the sun is briefly blocked. The project will collect these eclipse data from a larger area of land than has ever before.

And here's how they will do it. About 150 Eclipse Mob participants received a do-it-yourself kit. These allowed each to build a small radio receiver. It can then plug into the headphone jack of a smartphone. (Some volunteers made their own receivers after the project ran out of kits.) On August 21, all of these receivers will look for signals from radio transmitters. They would then record the signal’s strength before, during and after the eclipse.

Nelson isn’t sure what to expect. She only knows that the signal should differ depending on where the receivers are. “We’ll be looking for patterns,” she says. “I don’t know what we’re going to see.”

Boston University’s Semeter and his team also would like to measure the eclipse’s effects on the ionosphere with smartphones. But they won’t do that this year. For now, they will observe radio signals using an existing network of GPS receivers in Missouri. They will intersperse that with small, cheap GPS receivers that are similar to the kind in most phones.

Why GPS receivers? The 2017 eclipse will create a big cool spot. It will launch waves in the atmosphere that will propagate away from the moon’s shadow. Such waves will leave an imprint on the ionosphere that should alter GPS signals. Semeter's group hopes to combine high-quality data with messier data. What they learn from this could create a basis for future experiments to tap into the smartphone crowd.

“The ultimate vision of this project is to leverage all 2 billion smartphones around the planet,” Semeter says. Someday, everyone with a phone could be a node in a global ionosphere telescope.

If that works, the system it forms might one day prove a lifesaver.

Semeter explains that similar atmospheric waves were seen radiating from the source of the 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan. “The earthquake did the sort of thing the eclipse is going to do,” he says. Understanding how these waves form and move, he says, could potentially one day help predict earthquakes shortly before they strike.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

aurora     A light display in the sky caused when incoming energetic particles from the sun collide with gas molecules in a planet’s upper atmosphere. The best known of these is Earth’s aurora borealis, or northern lights. On some outer gas planets, like Jupiter and Saturn, the combination of a fast rate of rotation and strong magnetic field leads to high electrical currents in the upper atmosphere, above the planets’ poles. This, too, can cause auroral “light” shows in their upper atmosphere.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

density     The measure of how condensed some object is, found by dividing its mass by its volume.

earthquake     magnitude A measurement of the intensity of the ground-shaking associated with an earthquake. The scale is logarithmic. So for every 1 point increase in magnitude (such as from 3 to 4), there is a 10 fold increase in ground motion (how far the land shakes back and forth) and a roughly 33-fold increase in the amount of energy released.

eclipse     This occurs when two celestial bodies line up in space so that one totally or partially obscures the other. In a solar eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth line up in that order. The moon casts its shadow on the Earth. From Earth, it looks like the moon is blocking out the sun. In a lunar eclipse, the three bodies line up in a different order — sun, Earth, moon — and the Earth casts its shadow on the moon, turning the moon a deep red.

electrical engineer     An engineer who designs, builds or analyzes electrical equipment.

electron     A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

GPS     Abbreviation for global positioning system. This system uses a device to calculate the position of individuals or things (in terms of latitude, longitude and elevation — or altitude) from any place on the ground or in the air. The device does this by comparing how long it takes signals from different satellites to reach it.

ion     An atom or molecule with an electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons. An ionized gas, or plasma, is where all of the electrons have been separated from their parent atoms.

ionize    (n. ionization) To strip electrons from an atom or molecule, creating electrically charged particles. Electrons will have a negative charge. The atom or molecule that they left is left with a net positive electrical charge.

ionosphere     A layer of Earth’s atmosphere lying around 75 and 1,000 kilometers (47 and 620 miles) above Earth’s surface. It absorbs the sun’s harmful extreme-ultraviolet rays. That energy strips electrons from atoms and molecules, creating a zone full of free-floating ions. The share of ions present, here, affects radio and other signals passing through it.

magnetic field     An area of influence created by certain materials, called magnets, or by the movement of electric charges.

magnetic field lines     The lines that surround a magnet (you can see this if you drop iron filings around the edges of a bar magnet).

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

network     A group of interconnected people or things.

node     A person or thing in a network.

physicist     A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.

propagate     To spread or proliferate, as a wave.

radiation     (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.

radio waves     Waves in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. They are a type that people now use for long-distance communication. Longer than the waves of visible light, radio waves are used to transmit radio and television signals. They also are used in radar.

smartphone     A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.

telescope     Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.

ultraviolet     A portion of the light spectrum that is close to violet but invisible to the human eye.

warp     A change in the shape, usually due to some twisting or curving in a normally flat surface or plane. A piece of wet lumber may warp as it dries unevenly, causing it to bow or show a slight twist.

wave     A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.


Journal:​ ​​ J. D. Huba and D. Drob. SAMI3 prediction of the impact of the 21 August 2017 total solar eclipse on the ionosphere/plasmasphere system. Geophysical Research Letters. Vol. 44, June 23, 2017, p. 5928. doi: 10.1002/2017GL073549.