TitleImaging Ionospheric/Plasmaspheric Disturbances Triggered by the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse with the Very Large Array
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsHelmboldt, J
Conference Name AAS Meeting #231

Along with many Americans and several other observatories, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) was observing the Sun before, during, and after the total solar eclipse on 21 August 2017. However, the VLA also simultaneously conducted a unique set of observations aimed at characterizing the effects of the eclipse on Earth’s ionosphere/plasmasphere. While most of the VLA antennas were pointed at the Sun, 12 were looking at the bright radio galaxy M87. These 12 antennas are part of the VLA Low-band Ionosphere and Transient Experiment (VLITE; http://vlite.nrao.edu), a dedicated backend that continuously captures, correlates, and analyzes data in the 320-384 MHz frequency range. In addition to traditional synthesis imaging, VLITE also characterizes fluctuations in ionospheric/plasmaspheric density via measured variations in visibility phases. When observing a bright cosmic source, this can be done with unmatched precision, the equivalent of ~1-10 ppm. To look for ionospheric/plasmaspheric disturbances tied to the eclipse, a specialized spectral decomposition was applied to the M87 VLITE data. This method exploits the fact that disturbed flux tubes within the plasmasphere appear as magnetic eastward-directed waves to the VLA because the plasmasphere is dynamically dominated by co-rotation. The phase speeds of these waves are proportional to distance, allowing for a reconstruction of the electron density gradient as a function of (slant) range and time. The time ranges spanned by the large-scale ionospheric depletion seen within concurrent Global Positioning System (GPS) data as a function of longitude were mapped to the flux tubes imaged with this method using the M87 observations. With the exception of some solar flare-induced fluctuations, the observed disturbances appear confined to this part of the range/time image. This strongly implies the disturbances resulted from the rapid depletion and slower recovery of the ionosphere/plasmasphere system brought on by the eclipse. It should be noted that these disturbances are not apparent within the GPS data, highlighting VLITE as a uniquely capable ionospheric/plasmaspheric disturbance hunter.