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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Flying High During a Solar Eclipse

By Phil Plait

I should know better by now: Whenever I post a bunch of pictures from some astronomical event and say they were the best I saw, someone comes along and proves me wrong.

The photo above was taken by frequent BA Blog contributor Geoff Sims, who was flying on a plane chartered to observe the March 20 solar eclipse. (The flight was planned by my old friend and dedicated umbraphilic astronomer Glenn Schneider.) They were over the north Atlantic at 35,000 feet when he took that shot of the eclipsed Sun, the moon’s shadow darkening the Earth below.

It’s almost supernatural looking. On the left, the lighter penumbra of the shadow can barely be seen—to anyone there, the eclipse would have been partial, with bright sunlight still illuminating the ground.

On the right the dark umbra blots out the clouds below. Anyone there would have seen a total eclipse, the entire face of the Sun blacked out by the Moon. I love how the horizon sky is orange; the distant sunlight filtered through particles in the air.

I’m intrigued by the gentle curve of the shadow. If the eclipse had occurred over the equator, the Moon’s shadow would have fallen straight down onto the Earth, and looked very circular. But at this high latitude, so far north, the Moon’s shadow is lengthened, stretched out into an ellipse. I wonder if that’s what we’re seeing here?

The shot was taken as part of the documentary Sims and Nelson Quan are doing called Chasing Shadows, and it looks like it will be jaw-dropping. They have a Kickstarter to support it, so go there and throw money at them.

Photographer Stephan Heinsius was also flying through the eclipse (I believe on the same flight, in fact), and took video of it:

It looks very much like what Sims saw. Glenn has asked me several times to go on one of these flights. I may have to say yes eventually.

Here’s a bonus video of three smaller chartered planes that flew through the eclipse path, led by Xavier Jubier:

Wow. And still, I’ve never seen a total solar eclipse. But I only have to wait another couple of years …

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