Why ISS astronauts won't know where to look for next total solar eclipse for a while

a solar eclipse in progress with the moon starting to cover part of the sun
NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli captured this shot of the solar eclipse of Oct. 14, 2023 from the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA/Jasmin Moghbeli)

NASA astronauts plan to watch the total eclipse from space on April 8, but there will be some complications.

The Expedition 71 crew, which will include SpaceX's Crew-8 slated to launch no earlier than March 2, is finalizing its solar eclipse observing schedule. The goal is to catch the event from the International Space Station as it sweeps over the United States on April 8. However, NASA astronauts told Space.com on Jan. 25 that, while the cameras are ready and the astronauts are trained, timing can't be decided for a long time. 

This is because the ISS' precise orbit isn't guaranteed. For instance, the station may need to dodge space debris, Crew-8 NASA astronaut Michael Barratt told Space.com. That'd inevitably adjust its trajectory. "Every once a while, we have to tweak the orbit of our station to avoid hitting stuff," Barratt said. "The closer we get [to April], the more we'll be able to sharpen our approach. We'll know what our viewing angle is going to be."

Crew-8 will spend roughly half a year on the International Space Station (ISS), and the upcoming total solar eclipse will occur during this stay. On board will be NASA astronauts Matthew Dominick (commander), Barratt (pilot) and Jeanette Epps (mission specialist), along with mission specialist Alexander Grebenki, of the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

Related: NASA selects astronauts for SpaceX Crew-8 mission to International Space Station

Solar eclipses happen when the moon passes in front of the sun from Earth's perspective. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon is close enough in its orbit around our planet to cover the entire sun. The next total solar eclipse passes across much of the U.S. as well as some parts of Canada and Mexico. It'll take place on April 8; you can get details about how to safely observe the event here.

This won't be Barratt's first time observing an eclipse while aloft. When the last total solar eclipse went across the U.S. in 2017, he was on board an Alaska Airlines charter flight observing it at 40,000 feet. "The shadow was just speeding, hurtling towards the mainland. It was really amazing to me," he recalled.

Space.com skywatching columnist Joe Rao got this unique view of the total solar eclipse of Aug. 21, 2017, aboard a special Alaska Airlines charter flight. (Image credit: Joe Rao/Space.com)

As the astronauts get ready to aim their cameras, they are enjoying the progressions in digital technology since the last 2017 total eclipse in the U.S., Barratt said in a press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center held on Jan. 25.

"The big difference now is the camera complement (and) the imagery will be, I think, much more crisp and much, much more capable," Barratt said, adding, "we will stand ready on our very unique platform to capture it the best we can."

On the Roscosmos side of the ISS, Grebenkin said in a separate interview that discussions are also ongoing with the Russians regarding how to best approach the event. 

"I didn't really train specifically for the observing," Grebenkin said, speaking in Russian through an English interpreter. "I do know that it's going to happen, and I am planning to do my best to take pictures and also observe the event itself."

If you're looking to observe the solar eclipse on Earth, we have you covered. Our guide on how to observe the sun safely guide tells you what you need to know to look at the sun. We also have a guide to solar eclipse glasses, and how to safely photograph the sun if you'd like to get practicing before the big day.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace