A stunning snapshot of a total solar eclipse

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who’s written for Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic News and discovery.com. Throughout his career he’s watched humans and robots launch into space toward a cutting edge nuclear reactor and flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to share what it’s like to experience that up close and personal.

TRANSCRIPT

Dave Mosher is a science reporter who has written for National Geographic News, and Discovery.com.

Throughout his career, he's watched humans and robots launch into space, toured a cutting-edge nuclear reactor, and flown over the North Pole to catch a total solar eclipse.

He joins me now to share what it's like to experience that up close and personal.

So first of all, why fly over the North Pole to see an eclipse?

So actually flying over the North Pole isn't part of the goal, but it's on the way, you know, so you might as well just finish the journey and go over and say, 'Hey, we did it.'

The reason you would do that is because a total solar eclipse is a moving shadow.

And so if you can fly with the shadow of the moon, you know, being blocked out -- the moon blocking out the sun, then you can extend the length of totality, as they call it.

So these crazy eclipse-chasers will book these charter flights.

They do it every eclipse, and they spend tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes, you know, between travel and booking the charter flight and meals and entertainment and all that just to fly under the totality of the eclipse.

So this is something -- This is a thing.

This is a particular kind of tour that people -- So this flight has to go in the path of where the shadow's going.

It's not necessarily a, you know, New York-to-Tokyo type of flight.

Right, so these are really wild, you know, trajectories you get on because it's all determined by the orbits of Earth and the moon and the sun.

Like, it's all sort of celestially predetermined when these things are going to happen.

So they book these crazy, like, pathways, and the one I happened to be on in 2008 was going, you know, straight for the North Pole from, like, Dusseldorf, Germany.

So we flew over, like, Svalbard and some other places on a very strange flight path.

But in that flight path, we got to hang out in the shadow of the moon for much longer then you would be able to from the ground.

In fact, very few, if anybody, very few if any people would have seen that eclipse had they not been in an airplane because it was just cutting across the Arctic Ocean.

And this is, you know -- The shadow extends over the entire kind of visible spectrum of wherever you are from that plane, so you're essentially traveling in kind of a weird nondarkness but nonsun.

Yeah, you know, the people that were part of this trip were trying to explain this to me...

Yeah.

...because they've been doing this for decades.

They are hooked.

Like, once you see a total solar eclipse, you need to see another one because you only get a few minutes, and that few minutes is just indescribable.

You're in the -- Everything gets cold.

Yeah.

Everything gets dark.

Like, the birds stop chirping.

Like, weird, like -- Weird things happen.

It just seems very odd, and no wonder throughout history people have seen these as terrible omens...

Mm-hmm.

...or things like that because it's just uncanny to really be here.

The funny part is total solar eclipses happen all the time, you know.

They happen once every year or two.

It just depends where you're at on the Earth and the alignment of the moon happens to be.

So while you're in that plane, everything around you, I mean, is it basically like you're crossing the international timezone?

I mean, is it just sort of that weird twilight at the edge of the horizon?

Do you see where the shadow doesn't exist anymore?

Yeah, so when I was looking out this airplane window, it was almost like an immediate sunset.

That's how I would describe it.

Like, someone just, like, turned off the light.

Like, what just happened?

And you look down, and you can see the sort of, like, fuzzy edge of the shadow because there's totality where it's totally dark where we were at, and then there's, like, this peripheral sort of, like, sunset-like zone because the sun is bending around the moon and diffracting and making these sort of, like, reddish, ruddy colors.

Mm-hmm.

So you're sort of in this, like, circular sunset, and it's very strange.

And you look up at the sun, and you can see the corona, the outer fringes of the sun sort of spewing out from around the moon.

And that's one of the few opportunities we get to ever see the corona because the sun is so bright that it's hard to block it out.

So while they're in the aircraft, are there people who are trying to take photographs of this?

I mean, it's not perfectly steady, but how do they do it?

I mean, because it's so rare to see these coronas.

Yeah, so people design apps just to figure out the exposure settings for your DSLR camera and stuff.

And one of the guys on the flight's like, 'Oh, yeah, here.

You have this camera?

Well, use these settings, and, like, it'll come out just right.'

And it did.

Like, they're very obsessive, and this is, like, what I think the fun part of the eclipse is.

You have to know so much.

You have to learn so much about astronomy and physics and just the mechanics of everything to understand what you have to do in that particular moment and why it is happening the way it's happening.

But, yeah, lining the whole side of the plane were just people, you know, placard with their cameras and their faces.

There were, of course, discount seats on the other side where you couldn't see the eclipse.

All right. Dave Mosher, thanks so much for joining us.

My pleasure.