PARI scientists to get never-before-seen look at the sun during solar eclipse

P.A.R.I.'s campus is tucked deep inside the Pisgah National Forest. Chosen in part due to the large amount of mica mineral content in the surrounding mountains, which acts as a radio wave insulator. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

The upcoming "Great American Solar Eclipse" on August 21 has been touted as a once in a lifetime opportunity for citizens across the United States, but for scientists at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), it could mean even more.

PARI, as it's otherwise known, was established by NASA as the Rosman Satellite Tracking Station in the early 1960s to assist with communications in some of the United State's earliest efforts in space. The agency built two massive radio telescopes measuring 26 meters across along with a slew of smaller radio telescopes which will all be used to study the sun's atmosphere during totality, something that's never been done before.

Timothy Delisle is the Manager of Software Engineering at PARI and programs the software for the telescopes. "The totality portion of the solar eclipse is when you have the entire sun blocked out and you're just left with basically the sun's atmosphere around it, and that's something that's never been investigated before with radio telescopes like these, so we're very excited," Delisle said. "We don't know what we're going to find because this work has never really been done before and we hope to get some ground-breaking research done here."

Since they're so large, the two 26-meter telescopes will only be able to observe a portion of the sun's atmosphere during the eclipse, but the two smaller telescopes, 12 meters and 4.6 meters (also known as "smiley") across, will get a full picture.

"What we'll be doing is looking at the hydrogen in the sun, and as the bulk of the sun's light is blocked, we'll see what that hydrogen is doing in the atmosphere of the sun since that's the only part that'll be left exposed," Delisle told News 13.

Normally, having an observatory in an area that sees close to 90 inches of rain a year would be an issue, but not for radio telescopes. "Clouds won't matter for radio, which is another thing that makes this so great. Now, our visitors will probably be pretty disappointed if we have a cloudy day like this, but the radio telescopes don't care."

PARI is throwing a big eclipse party on August 21, with close to 800 members of the public expected to attend, along with 200 other scientists, dignitaries, and members of the media.

Speakers from NASA will give talks leading up to the eclipse along with other events for children and adults. Many of the events, including some portion of the eclipse, will be available to stream from PARI's website.

A team from NASA will be onsite to fly kites and take weather observations during the eclipse. Another team from Lenoir-Rhyne University will also be assisting NASA by launching weather balloons.

Currently, PARI is a not-for-profit foundation which focuses on educational opportunities and grant work. Students and teachers from around the world can even control the sites smaller "smiley" satellite remotely.

"We're going to get to show off the site and what we do here," Delisle said. "You know, PARI being a top secret facility for part of its lifespan kind of made it drop out of people's radar for a little while and we're hoping that an event like this is going to help put us back on the map."

PARI is open to the public from Monday through Saturday from 9-4 p.m. and offers many educational opportunities. For more information about the eclipse or PARI, with their website here.