Solar Eclipse Wows Airborne Skywatchers Over Arctic Circle
A small portion of the passengers watching the Aug. 1, 2008 solar eclipse from onboard LTU Polar Flight 1111 en route to the North Pole.
Credit: Joe Rao

ABOARD A JET ABOVE THE ARCTIC OCEAN – A total of 147 observers from around the world had a perfect view of this morning's total eclipse of the sun, 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 LTU 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 the 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.

Unique observing location

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 the participants, many of whom were already up before dawn to ready themselves 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. 

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.

This morning's flight 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 Schneider's data, Captain Wilhelm Heinz, maneuvered the aircraft into the track of the moon's dark shadow.

What a view!

This 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 observers searched near the sun for a small, faint comet that was discovered on SOHO satellite imagery some hours before the eclipse.  But no evidence of the comet was observed.

Data on plasma sought

Schneider'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.  

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

"Pole Vault"

After the eclipse, the rest of the journey was spent "flightseeing." 

Ahead lay endless fields of pack ice, cracks and enormous icebergs which offered breathtaking views. Captain Heinz did a "countdown" to the flight's impending arrival at 90-degrees north latitude, and soon, the eclipse participants were literally "on top of the world" at the North Pole. 

After directly over-flying the Pole, we "circled the globe," clockwise and counterclockwise, flying across all 360 degrees of longitude within just two minutes. At the North Pole, we were practically equidistant to Point Barrow, Alaska as to Knivskjellodden in Norway. From this point, the distance to Northern Canada was only 465 miles, putting us closer to the American continent than to Europe. 

After our trek above the Pole, we headed back to Dusseldorf.  According to Sebastian Schmitz of Deutsche Polarflug, another journey to the North Pole is planned for May 2009 (without an eclipse, of course!).  Those who are interested in joining this venture can click here http://www.polarflug.de/ for more information.

  • The Aug. 1 Eclipse View from Earth
  • Galleries: Solar Eclipse in 2005 and 2006
  • Video: Solar Eclipse - The Perfect Ballet

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.