The Sciences

Fly the eclipsing skies

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitFeb 26, 2010 1:48 AM


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My friend Glenn Schneider is an astronomer with a not-so-peculiar obsession for those of us in this trade: he's an umbraphile, a shadow lover, an eclipse chaser. He's seen 27 solar eclipses... at last count. I know if that's wrong he'll be quick to correct me. One thing he's been doing for the past few eclipses is to watch them from airplanes, which has lots of advantages over seeing them from the ground. For one thing, you can fly above clouds, so there's no chance of weather screwing up the view. Plus, you can make the eclipse last longer! The moon passes in front of the Sun in a solar eclipse, casting a shadow on the ground. But the Moon orbits the Earth, and the Earth is spinning, so the shadow of the Moon moves across the planet. In an airplane, you can follow it! In general the shadow is moving too quickly to keep up, but you can certainly prolong the experience.

On July 11 of this year, there will be a solar eclipse over the Pacific Ocean, about 2500 km east of Tahiti. Now get this: Glenn has commissioned an entire airplane to view this eclipse, and he's looking for people who want to come along*. Not only that, they will strip out the seats on the side of the plane facing the eclipse, giving more room for people to watch. And finally, the really astonishing part: by following the shadow in an airplane, passengers will experience the eclipse lasting an incredible nine and a half minutes! That is actually a solid two minutes longer than the maximum duration of a solar eclipse as seen from the ground. If this sounds like something you want to do, then all the actual trip details (pricing, what you need, etc.) are on Rick Brown's Eclipse Safari website. The contact details for both Glenn and Rick are on their respective sites. I'll note that this eclipse happens during TAM 8, so I cannot go. Someday, though, I swear I'll see a total eclipse. Glenn keeps twisting my arm, so I suspect when I do see one, he'll be right there. And I'll have bruises on my arm. Images courtesy Glenn Schneider

Your view, should you accept this mission.

^* Think of it as your time out of the Sun.

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