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Alaska Air flight goes off course to capture stunning view of eclipse
OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space And The Stuff In Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

Miss the March solar eclipse? See it all in just 34 seconds!


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, March 10, 2016, 1:00 PM - Whether you missed the one and only total solar eclipse of 2016 or you just want to see it again, watch this beautiful celestial event right here in just 34 seconds!

The eclipse started shortly after sunrise in Indonesia, on Wednesday, March 9, but thanks to time zones and eclipse enthusiasts with cameras, those of us on the other side of the planet were still able to watch as it happened.

To see the highlights of the event, read on and enjoy!

How can we see it (again)?

Even with its somewhat unusual timing and rather inconvenient path (for those of us in Canada), the eclipse was still available to watch, no matter where in the world we happen to be.

Many astronomers and eclipse enthusiasts made the trip to Indonesia to capture the event, and the folks with the Slooh Community Observatory were broadcasting the view from Indonesia out over their livefeed. Their 3-hour broadcast covered the entire eclipse, from when the Moon first starts to cover the Sun, through totality, and until the Moon completely leaves the solar disk behind.

Watch below as Slooh presents a time lapse replay of the event, from beginning to totality, in just 34 seconds!

Who saw this eclipse in person?

Anyone was able to watch the eclipse from anywhere in the world, however, the place to be for seeing this event in person was the islands of Indonesia, perhaps a few islands or ships in the Pacific Ocean, and curiously, one specific Alaska Air flight taking place tonight (read on).


Path of the March 9/8 eclipse. Credit: NASA
Click to enlarge.

By local clocks, in western Indonesia, the Moon began creeping across the disk of the Sun starting at around 6:20 a.m. and it completely left the disk of the Sun around two hours later, peaking about an hour into the eclipse (around 7:30 a.m.). Central Indonesia saw this all happen roughly an hour later by their clocks (starting around 7:20 a.m.), and eastern Indonesia could watch it all go down about an hour after that (8:20 a.m.) in their time zone.

The path the shadow traced after leaving southeast Asia took it across the south Pacific and into the northern hemisphere, shown by blue line in the image to the right. The gridded pattern reveals how much of the eclipse various regions of the world were able to see, depending on how far away from the focal point of the Moon's shadow they were. Hawaii, as well as some regions of Alaska and Yukon territory had a chance to catch the very end of the partial eclipse, close to sunset on Tuesday evening.

How did this eclipse end before it started?

How is it possible to see a March 9 morning solar eclipse during the evening of March 8? The eclipse crossed eight different time zones, including the International Date Line!

The eclipse itself made a smooth transition across the planet from west to east, starting in Indonesia and ending north of Hawaii. Simply based on the way we organize our time zones and calendar, and the 12-hour difference between the different sides of the International Date Line (IDL), though, it was actually seen first on March 9 for locations west of the IDL, and then end on March 8 for those east of it.

Who had the most interesting view of the eclipse?

In addition to those watching from the ground, one specific plane full of people, flying on Alaska Air from Anchorage to Honolulu, was guaranteed an awesome view as their flight was actually timed perfectly to fly directly through the shadow of the Moon!

According to Alaska Air:

Tuesday’s rendezvous over the Pacific Ocean is not luck, but a precisely planned equation. The calculations began a year ago. The only variable was the plane.
In window seat 32F, Joe Rao will be one of the dozen astronomers and veteran “eclipse chasers” among the 163 passengers onboard, gazing out oval windows as the moon blocks the sun for nearly two minutes.
He’s an associate astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium (where astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is director). About a year ago, Rao discovered that Alaska Airlines Flight 870 from Anchorage to Honolulu would intersect the “path of totality” – the darkest shadow of the moon as it passes over the Earth.
But the flight’s normally scheduled departure time would be 25 minutes too early, missing the grand spectacle.
Rather than attempt to move the sun or the moon or the Earth, Rao called Alaska Airlines.
Alaska decided to move the plane.

There was no doubt passengers simply on their way for a Hawaiian vacation, however there was a mix of astronomers and eclipse chasers on the flight as well.

Veteran eclipse chaser Dan McGlaun was reportedly on hand with Mylar eclipse glasses for everyone, so that they could watch the eclipse safely.

"You can't be doing something that's this exciting and not give everybody onboard the chance to at least participate," he told Alaska Air.

These glasses block out the Sun's harmful rays, providing the passengers with protection during the partial portions of the eclipse. The moments of totality, when the Moon completely blocks the disk of the Sun, are safe enough to remove the glasses for better viewing (however, the timing has to be excellent, so as not to risk eye damage).

There was another great view of the shadow captured that day... from space!


Credit: NASA EPIC

This animation was produced from images snapped by NASA's EPIC camera, on board the NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), stationed at Lagrange Point 1, 1.6 million kilometres from here, between Earth and the Sun.

Why doesn't DSCOVR also pick up the Moon in these images? Lagrange Point 1 (L1) is a stable spot in space, where the gravitational pull of the Sun, the Moon and Earth are in balance, but DSCOVR doesn't just sit at that point in space. According to Dave Doody, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the spacecraft "drifts" back and forth across this stable gravitational point in space, so it doesn't remain in the same place relative to the Earth and the Sun.

EPIC has snapped a picture of the Moon crossing the face of Earth, however. We saw some great images of this back in August 2015. At that point, though, while the two astronomical objects were lined up from DSCOVR's vantage point, the Sun, Moon and Earth weren't in the right alignment for an eclipse. The Moon's shadow swept past either above or below the planet at that time.

Was there any science coming out of this?

Viewing this total solar eclipse wasn't just about the spectacular view. There was also some great science going on, as a team of NASA scientists made the trip to get a close look at the Sun's atmosphere. 

While the joint NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) takes coronagraph images of the solar corona every day, eclipses offer a special look at what's going on around the Sun.

"You can't see the corona that close to the surface with a coronagraph. You cut off a large portion of the innermost corona," NASA heliophysicist Natchimuthuk Gopalswamy said in a statement. "The main advantage of the total solar eclipse is seeing much closer to the sun’s surface."

Watch Below: NASA Solar scientists Natchimuthuk Gopalswamy, Nelson Reginal, Eric Christian, and Sarah Jaeggli discuss the 2016 total solar eclipse and how it is great preparation for the 2017 eclipse.

Prepping for The Big One

Why were the scientists so interested in this particular eclipse?

On August 21, 2017, just over 17 months from now, a similar total solar eclipse will pass directly over the United States.

So, NASA scientists were testing out their observation methods in Indonesia, to make the most of that upcoming opportunity.

Sources: NASA | Timeanddate.com | Alaska AirPlanetary Society (h/t to Emily Lakdawalla) | NASA | NASA/ESA

Watch Below: Catch another view of this beautiful solar eclipse courtesy NASA, the National Science Foundation and San Francisco's Exploratorium.

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