Total Solar Eclipse Viewing Scheduled for Alaska Airlines Flight

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Solar Eclipse
An eclipse of the sun will be visible to those in Indonesia and on the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the moon will be orbiting directly in front of the sun March 8 and 9, 2016, at 7:30 a.m. local time, for Southeast Asia. Palembang in Sumatra will be the very first major city to view this remarkable event on March 9, 2016, at 7:20 a.m. local time. It should also be visible to people in parts of Hawaii, America Samoa, Guam, and Alaska. ABC News reports that the path of the eclipse will move northeast, crossing the international dateline and the Pacific Ocean. The solar eclipse will end close to Hawaii at 5:35 p.m., local time, the afternoon of March 8, 2016.

The same afternoon, an Alaska Airlines flight will be delaying its flight plan by a half hour, just to give the passengers a special view of the solar eclipse they will not soon forget. The Verge reported that Alaska Airlines Flight 870 from Anchorage to Honolulu is going to allow for the special delay, in order to show all of the eclipse to the flight’s passengers.

The passengers mostly will be umbraphiles, or eclipse lovers. (The word umbra refers to the absolute darkest part of the shadow cast by the moon as it crosses the surface of the earth.) The boarding list is full of lunar shadow chasers, and chief among them is Joe Rao, the associate astronomer at the Hayden Planetarium.

Rao noticed in 2015 that the flight path of the plane would meet with the path of totality, meaning that the plane would be privy to the very best view of the solar eclipse for its duration of the event. However, at the time of departure, Flight 870 would have missed the eclipse by 25 minutes. Rao called Alaska Airlines, who then decided to treat him and other astronomy fans with an unprecedented gift. They agreed to adjust the flight plan by a half hour to allow the passengers to view the solar eclipse from 37,000 feet.

Among the attendants are a variety of people all with a shared fervor for seeing the exact alignment of two celestial bodies. The official Alaska Air blog detailed how certain umbraphiles travel the world in search of the next event. A semi-retired astronomer from the Hayden Planetarium, Craig Small, says that his view from 37,000 feet on Tuesday will be eclipse number 31. He has been watching them since 1973 and has never missed one. Dan McGlaun will be bringing sets of special sunglasses to distribute to the 163 passengers, so everyone can watch during all phases of the solar eclipse.

For a few minutes during totality, the shadow of the moon will completely obscure the sun. The shadow cast by the moon is 68 miles by 500 miles long and oval-shaped. Alaska Air reports that for those in the Alaska Air Flight 870 at 5:35 p.m. HST will be the last witnesses to the solar eclipse. The plane’s cabin will be completely shrouded in the shadow of the moon for a minute and 53 seconds. Rao likens the minutes leading up to totality to the darkening of a Broadway theater when the show is about to start, a curtain call for the planet.

For those on the ground, ABC News reports that NASA is planning to host a live stream of the event from 8:38 p.m. to 8:42 p.m. ET Tuesday night. It is advisable that those who are able to watch in person wear protective eyewear, and under no circumstances should anyone view the sun being blocked by the moon through a telescope or binoculars, as the lens are capable of magnifying the sun’s rays.

According to ABC News, the next eclipse slated to be seen from the vantage point of the United States will happen on Aug. 21, 2017. The future event is known as “The Great American Eclipse” as it will pass across the entire United States, the first one to do so since 1918. It is eagerly awaited by umbraphiles and casual astronomy fans alike.

By Juanita Lewis
Edited by Leigh Haugh & Cathy Milne

ABC News: Total Solar Eclipse: How to Watch the Spectacle No Matter Where You Are
The Verge: Alaska Airlines is adjusting a plane’s flight plan so passengers can see tomorrow’s solar eclipse
Alaska Air Blog: Chasing the shadow of the moon: To intercept eclipse, Alaska Airlines adjusts flight plan to delight astronomers
Christian Science Monitor: A total eclipse of the sun is coming. Here’s how to catch it.
Image Courtesy of Takeshi Kuboki’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License