Pole Vaulting to a Solar Eclipse


Joe Rao

Joe Rao

A good friend of mine, Joel Moskowitz of Long Island is (like me) hopelessly addicted to traveling anywhere in the world to view a total eclipse of the Sun. On Friday, August 1, I saw my tenth eclipse, but Joel is two ahead of me with 12.  And every time totality ends, Joel always says the same thing:

Let's do it again!

I joined 146 observers from around the world for a perfect view of the August 1st total eclipse, thanks to an 2,189-mile airlift to a grandstand seat 36,000-feet above the Arctic Ocean at a point between the uninhabited northern coast of Greenland and the Norwegian island group of Svalbard.

The contingent of eclipse watchers were onboard an Airbus A330-200 long-range jet, racing the moon's shadow like paparazzi scrambling alongside a celebrity's passing automobile. The aircraft's 555-mile-per-hour speed (Mach 0.85) provided 175-seconds of total eclipse for all onboard passengers to take pictures and record other data.  In contrast, persons on a stationary ship on the Arctic sea below would have seen—provided no clouds blocked the view—the moon's 139-mile wide shadow speed past them at 2,740 mph, providing a noticeably shorter total eclipse lasting 132 seconds.

No planetarium in the world could have produced so impressive a natural spectacle as the sun and moon did in the cobalt-blue heavens; although the sight lasted less than 3 minutes, the fantastically beautiful skyscape more than repaid all of us; in fact we had to be up before dawn to ready ourselves for a round-trip flight of 12 hours.

The adventure began nearly six hours earlier in Dusseldorf, Germany and was arranged by the air charter company Deutsche Polarflug (AirEvents) which has operated previous successful over-flights of the North Pole with this same aircraft. Dr. Glenn Schneider, from the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, on hand for his 27th total eclipse, worked out the flight plan to rendezvous with the moon's shadow. Glenn and I grew up in the Bronx and we've known each other for 35-years.

The flight itself was unique in the annals of solar eclipse chasing since there were no other records of any total eclipse observations in such close proximity (approximately 500-miles) from the North Pole.  Utilizing Glenn's data, Captain Wilhelm Heinz, maneuvered the aircraft into the track of the moon's dark shadow.  Our jet, surmounted more than 75-percent of the atmosphere (in terms of mass) and almost all of its water vapor below, providing an opportunity to see what happens in the Earth's upper atmosphere when the sun is switched off, so to speak. Minutes before totality, the light inside the cabin faded, much in the same manner as lights in a theater dim before the start of a show.

As the last of the sun's rays slipped behind the jagged lunar edge it produced a beautiful and long-lasting Diamond Ring effect. The dark lunar shadow then swept in from the west and enveloped the plane in an eerie darkness.  The sun's beautiful corona heralded the beginning of the total phase.  It appeared to throw off several long streamers—typical for a corona at sunspot minimum, which is where solar activity is now.

Adding to this scene was an array of four bright planets arranged to the lower left of the darkened sun: Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Mars.  Some of us searched near the sun for a small, faint comet that was discovered on satellite imagery some hours before the eclipse.  But no evidence of it was observed.

Glenn's experiments dealt in part with the density of plasma within the solar corona, and especially how it is heated to millions of degrees. Plasma is a gas in which normal atoms have been stripped of some or all of their electrons, thus becoming ions.  This commonly occurs in extremely hot gases such as the solar corona.  The plasma in the corona is strikingly similar to the plasma that would have to be heated, compressed and refined in a fusion reactor here on Earth, and the irregular behavior of the sun's corona might hold clues to the proper design of a workable fusion reactor.

Glenn was collaborating with Jay Pasachoff of Williams College in Massachusetts who was stationed in Siberia for the eclipse.  He utilized a platform controlled by two gyros that carried several cameras for recording eclipse images.  They previously collaborated on a similar observation over the Antarctic in 2003.

After the eclipse, Captain Heinz flew our aircraft to a point directly above the North Pole, then we headed back to Dusseldorf.

On Saturday, August 2nd (my birthday), I headed back to New York. Unfortunately, I arrived more than 4-hours late after having my flight from Germany re-routed first (unsuccessfully) to Boston and then to Bangor, Maine.  We sat on the tarmac for an hour while they refueled the plane.  Then, we headed back to JFK.  Apparently, extensive delays in the wake of thunderstorms from earlier in the day was the reason for our unscheduled detour to New England.  Most of the folks onboard the plane were German and had no clue where Bangor was.  The guy who was next to me spoke pretty good English and so he served as a translator for most of the people sitting around us as I explained that Bangor was a city much smaller than Boston, located about 250 kilometers farther away to the north and east.  There was a nervous murmur in the crowd and then one guy commented: Mit dieser et uns zurück zu Deutschland! (At this rate, they'll be sending us back to Germany!).

I was on that plane for 12-hours; and the day before I was on the Eclipse Flight, also for 12-hours!  The next total solar eclipse will be on July 22nd of next year and will sweep across India, China and the south islands of Japan.  You might wonder if all the time and miles expended is worth a view of a darkened Sun for a few precious minutes?

My answer?

Let's do it again!