The dark silhouette of the moon partially obscuring the sun during a solar eclipse

This celestial event, where the moon passes directly between the Earth and the Sun, temporarily cloaking daylight in darkness, offers not just a spectacle for the eyes but also a unique scientific opportunity to study the effects of eclipses on the Earth’s near-space environment.

Solar eclipses have fascinated humanity throughout history, serving as subjects of wonder, fear, and intense scientific inquiry. They occur when the Moon’s orbit aligns perfectly to cast a shadow over the Earth, temporarily blocking the Sun’s light. Beyond their awe-inspiring visual display, these events provide scientists with a natural laboratory to study phenomena otherwise hidden in the light of day.

This year, David Themens and Ben Reid from the Space Environment and Radio Engineering (SERENE) research group at the University of Birmingham are undertaking an ambitious scientific experiment during the total solar eclipse on April 8th, 2024. Stationed in Fredericton, Canada, they are investigating the eclipse’s impacts on the ionosphere – a layer of Earth’s upper atmosphere filled with charged particles, known as plasma, that plays a crucial role in radio communication.

Joining forces with the University of New Brunswick’s EclipseNB mission, Themens and Reid will utilise an advanced network of newly developed sounding instruments and observatories spanning the Canadian path of totality. This initiative builds on the curiosity sparked by observations during the “Great American Eclipse” of August 21, 2017, propelling forward our understanding of the ionosphere’s dynamics.

The insights gained from this experiment have the potential to improve our understanding of the ionosphere’s response to solar eclipses

Dr David Themens, Space Environment and Radio Engineering Group (SERENE)

Central to their research is the Assimilation Canadian High Arctic Ionospheric Model (A-CHAIM), an innovative space weather model that Themens and Reid have developed. By integrating data from a constellation of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) observatories and other sensors, A-CHAIM will offer unprecedented insights into the ionosphere’s behaviour under the shadow of the eclipse.

This analysis is not merely academic; the ionosphere’s plasma can significantly interfere with GNSS signals, such as those from GPS, leading to navigation errors. Understanding and modelling the eclipse’s effects on these systems is vital for improving the reliability of communication and navigation technologies that underpin modern society.

The insights gained from this experiment have the potential to improve our understanding of the ionosphere’s response to solar eclipses. By tracking the formation of plasma instabilities and assessing their impact on GNSS signal integrity, Themens and Reid’s work will enhance our ability to predict and mitigate these effects in the future.

Moreover, this research will test the limits of A-CHAIM, and other ionospheric models developed by SERENE, predictive capabilities, with the hope of refining these critical tool for global users. The knowledge acquired will not only shed light on the processes at play during an eclipse but also help fortify our defences against space weather phenomena that can disrupt our technological systems.

As the world looks up to witness the majesty of the total solar eclipse, SERENE and the University of New Brunswick’s EclipseNB team will be delving deep into the shadows to illuminate the mysteries of our near-Earth environment. Their work stands at the forefront of space weather research, promising to expand our understanding of the universe and safeguard our technological future.