The upcoming total solar eclipse is a brief opportunity for scientists to study the sun. On Aug. 21, the eclipse is expected to reach totality—the point when the moon completely blocks the sun’s light—for only around two minutes and forty seconds. NASA scientists are taking advantage of this opportunity by observing the eclipse from two WB-57F research jets as they chase the moon’s shadow across Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee. The two planes will launch from Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and will fly into the stratosphere while taking high resolution photos of the eclipse, allowing scientists to observe the sun’s atmosphere.

Aerospace engineering alumnus Charles Mallini, B.S. ASE ’77, M.S. ASE ’87, is at the forefront of this project as Branch Chief of NASA’s WB-57F Program. He says the project is an ongoing adventure and took the time to answer some questions about his work and the eclipse.

Charles Mallini with aircraft
Charles Mallini with one of the WB-57F jets that will be chasing the solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

1) What does your current position entail as branch chief manager for the WB-57F program? What makes these jets unique?

We have three WB-57 aircraft at NASA-JSC; they’re the only three in the world and they are high-altitude research aircraft. We do all the maintenance here, all the operations and engineering. My job is to make sure those airplanes are ready to fly when needed. 

These jets have the ability to fly over 60,000 feet. If you look at the United States, there are only a couple of other planes that can do that, for example the Air Force has the U-2 plane, there’s also their Global Hawks. NASA has the U-2 which we fly for research, they’re called ER-2s. So there aren’t many aircraft that can get to those altitudes and do different types of research.

2) These jets will be chasing the upcoming total solar eclipse using twin telescopes mounted on the nose of the aircraft. How does this factor into your position at NASA?

NASA owns those two telescopes. Our job for the Solar Eclipse mission is to make sure they’re up and running. We’re flying one today to do some final check-ups. They’ll go up and mainly turn it on to see if it’s running, then do some focusing and look at things on the ground. The one we’re flying today had a component failure two days ago so we replaced it and are going up today and checking it out.

It’s worth mentioning that we were contracted by Southwest Research Institute, SWRI, funded by a NASA grant. They proposed using our two planes and the telescopes camera systems we have. So, SWRI will do the science and we will fly our aircraft with the instruments on the nose for them.

3) Why is this mission important to scientists and engineers?

If you talk to the science guys, they’ll say the solar eclipse offers a unique opportunity to look at the sun. Nature is pretty close to being perfect on what it can block out on the sun, so you can then look at things like the corona, the atmosphere around the sun. They hope to see intricate things going on like micro flares that erupt on the surface and they hope to see how they may move through the corona.

Because the planes are traveling along with the eclipse, we can observe it almost three times longer than people watching from Earth. Between the two airplanes, we will get about 7 minutes of totality. The goal is to get the planes separated by a distance so that when one comes out of totality the other airplane will start going into it.

4) What is most challenging about this mission so far? What are you most excited about?

The most challenging is getting all the parts and pieces into place and getting them to work.

The primary objective for this is science and I think we have all of that locked down. We made changes to the Dynamite—that’s what we call our sensor on the telescope. Those changes have checked out so now we have to do all the final things to get ready.

Additionally, we have people in the backseat—there are two people in the plane—a pilot and the telescope operator. They have to make sure their checklists are set up and ready so we know what to do and when to do it, and what happens if we take off late.

So there’s contingency planning, normal planning and all of those things are needed to make sure we have a successful mission. If everything goes well and our satellite link is good, we will be able to provide real-time downlink to NASA Public Affairs, which will be displayed on the Solar Eclipse Live Event.

The most exciting thing is doing the science. We’ve never used these telescopes and camera systems in this way before so this is new for us. If we can get the video stream to work we’ll have a unique view of the eclipse from 50,000 feet—that’s pretty neat. There are so many moving pieces and if we can get them all to work well, it will be a great adventure.

5) How did your educational experience at UT Austin help prepare you for this work?

My education at UT has really taught me how to think. That’s kind of strange, but there’s nothing in an aerospace degree that says ‘you’re going to be prepared to go do this.’ But it has taught me how to work through problems, how to apply engineering principles, how to organize, all of those things are critical to any job that I’ve done and this is just another example how the broad experience and broad background at UT has allowed me to do these types of things.

solar eclipse image
An image of the solar eclipse taken from one of the WB-57F jets with a mid-wave infrared camera.