When a total solar eclipse unfolds over the United States on Aug. 21, Southern Research communications engineer Donald Darrow will have a front row seat for the spectacular event some 50,000 feet above Earth.

Darrow will be aboard one of two NASA WB-57 high-altitude research planes flying in the stratosphere that day on a groundbreaking mission to capture the clearest views ever produced of the Sun’s outer atmosphere and the first thermal images revealing temperature shifts on the surface of Mercury.

“It certainly will be an exciting mission,” Darrow said. “I’m going to have the best view of probably anyone on the planet.”

Darrow is serving as the lead special equipment operator, or SEO, on the mission. His job is to operate a unique instrument developed by Southern Research called AIRS/DyNAMITE, which functions like an airborne telescope with special capabilities.

Southern Research solar eclipse
Southern Research’s Donald Darrow will operate the AIRS instrument on a NASA WB-57 aircraft during the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

The system is mounted on both of the WB-57 planes flying on the eclipse mission.

From nearly 10 miles above Earth, the AIRS/DyNAMITE’S high-speed, visible-light and infrared cameras will provide scientists with highly precise observations of the solar corona and the Sun’s nearest planetary neighbor.

The mission is being directed by Texas-based Southwest Research Institute, which brought in Southern Research to outfit the instruments with solar filters, new data recorders, and other upgrades. Darrow is flying on the WB-57 through Southern Research’s work with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Darrow has served as an SEO on WB-57 missions involving the AIRS/DyNAMITE equipment for around five years. The instrument, developed for the Space Shuttle program in 2004, has been deployed on a wide range of missions, from rocket launches to aircraft test flights.

“It’s a phenomenal asset, and everybody we show it to is very impressed by its capabilities, both by its versatility and by the resolution of its images,” Darrow said.

THE MISSION

On Aug. 21, Darrow’s day will be a long one.

It will start early that morning in Houston with three hours of equipment checks, briefings and other preparations. The flight to Carbondale, Illinois, the site picked to make observations because that’s where the total eclipse will last the longest, and back to Houston will take about six hours. After that, there will be debriefings and data transmission chores.

High above Carbondale, the two WB-57 aircraft will take turns collecting data on the eclipse for a combined total of around eight minutes. The fast-moving planes will be able to chase the moon’s shadow, giving Darrow and the other equipment operator additional time to make observations.

In addition, the AIRS/DyNAMITE instruments on the planes will capture thermal images of Mercury’s surface that could allow scientists to calculate temperatures on the planet’s entire night side for the first time.

Johanna Lewis, director of the Program Management Office in Southern Research’s Engineering Division, has worked with a SR team making modifications to the AIRS/DyNAMITE instruments to prepare them for the mission.

She said the long flight for Darrow will boil down to a few eventful minutes on Aug. 21.

“There may be millions of people on the ground watching exactly what he’s doing,” Lewis said. “He’s going to be involved in so much activity during a few minutes — tracking, making sure everything is in focus, making sure the system is operating just the way he wants, because he’s not going to get another chance to go around and do it again.”

While Darrow agreed that the mission promises to be a taxing one, the former Marine said he is confident it will go smoothly.

“This mission is very similar to our rocket launches in that we don’t get a second shot. If we miss this, we miss it,” he said. “When we are doing mapping, or something similar to that, we can always come back around for another pass.

“This time, it has go perfectly and smoothly. Otherwise, we don’t get the science.”

Darrow said he’s looking forward to seeing the scientific discoveries that come from the mission’s unprecedented look at the first total solar eclipse to track across the entire continental U.S. since 1918.

“We expect that within a few weeks of the data being delivered that we will have some preliminary observations about its quality and utility,” he said.