ECLIPSE 2017: Mission to race sun will include flying in total darkness

The total eclipse over North America is drawing tremendous interest from solar seekers who are heading to prime spots across the U.S.

A once-in-a-lifetime mission for the eclipse event launched Monday morning. It will fly near the edge of space to follow the blotted out sun on its path over the country.

The planes began their mission around 8 a.m.

Cary Klemm is in one of two NASA jets that are flying at 500 mph ahead of the eclipse's path, starting near St. Louis and continuing eastward through Illinois and Tennessee.

Klemm is in charge of capturing nearly 15,000 high resolution photos of the sun's corona during the total eclipse, at just the right moment.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about the rare solar eclipse

"It's my responsibility to calibrate the instrument, focus and set the camera up to get what we're looking for," Klemm explained.

Klemm's camera is mounted to the front of a NASA WB-57 long-winged jet.

He says the photos have to be taken at the right moment.

"Even with a tiny bit of sun showing, it's enough to damage the cameras, which are very sensitive," Klemm said.

Tom Parent is piloting one of the two aircraft. Together, the jets will experience the total eclipse longer than anyone else. Like Klemm's job, Parent's responsibilities are just as important.

"The eclipse will overtake us, so we are going to total darkness for about four minutes for each aircraft," Parent said.

With the photos, researchers will take a look at how space weather affects the earth.

The photos should also help in understanding and preparing for solar storms.

"It can knock out lights. It can pose a hazard to astronauts. It can knock out power grids on the ground. It can cause planes to have to reroute around the poles," said Amir Caspi, senior researcher at Southwest Research Institute.

"What nobody has done yet is to make a heat map and to try to understand how the temperature changes from its day side to its night," Caspi said.

Between the two jets, nearly 30,000 images of the corona will be captured, with nearly eight minutes of photos and videos captured in all.

The mission will also allow the team to get a rare look at another planet: Mercury.

Where to watch the solar eclipse in Houston

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A total solar eclipse will be visible across the U.S. on August 21, the first time on the U.S. mainland since 1979.

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