For armchair astronomers and nearly everyone else watching the skies during the total solar eclipse Aug. 21, it will all be over in 2½ minutes. 

But a team of NASA-funded scientists chasing the moon's shadow in retrofitted WB-57F jet planes will experience the rare phenomenon for more than seven extraordinary minutes.

A team led by Amir Caspi of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., will follow the darkness of the eclipse across the United States in two of NASA's research jets. The planes will take off from Houston and cross over Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee.

Mounted on the noses of both planes will be telescopes aimed to capture the clearest images taken to date of the sun's outer atmosphere, known as the corona. 

solar-eclipse-nasa

During the upcoming total solar eclipse, a team of NASA-funded scientists will observe the sun using telescopes aboard two of NASA's WB-57F research aircraft. (NASA/Faroe Islands/SwRI)

"These could well turn out to be the best ever observations of high frequency phenomena in the corona," Dan Seaton, co-investigator of the project and researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said in a written statement.

"Extending the observing time and going to very high altitude might allow us to see a few events or track waves that would be essentially invisible in just two minutes of observations from the ground."

Rare opportunity

During a total solar eclipse, the moon completely blocks the sun, allowing the sun's corona to be seen in stark contrast to the surrounding darkness.

Scientists hope to untangle some of the mystery around why the outer layers of the sun's atmosphere are actually hotter than the layers closer to the sun.

Micro explosions on the sun's surface — known as nanoflares — could play a part in this puzzling phenomenon, and the eclipse offers a rare opportunity to observe them.

At the same time, the team expects to get thermal images of Mercury to find out how temperatures vary across the surface of the planet closest to the sun.

NASA is funding 11 projects that will allow scientists to use the eclipse to learn about the sun and its relationship to the Earth's upper atmosphere.