Published: 2016-03-08 07:34:00
Updated: 2016-03-08 09:38:49
Posted March 8, 2016
By Tony Rice
The only total solar eclipse of 2016 occurs on March 9-8. This odd schedule happens because the moon’s shadow moves from west to east beginning March 9 in the Indian Ocean southeast of Sri Lanka, passes over Indonesia, over the International Date Line into the South Pacific and ends north of the Hawaiian Islands on March 8.
Solar eclipses, especially total ones, are more than a curiosity. Each provides a unique opportunity to study the sun's atmosphere, the corona, and how it drives explosive clouds of solar material called coronal mass ejections. This space weather can disrupt satellites and radio communications near Earth as well as impact astronauts aboard the International Space Station. We study the sun’s corona using a device called a coronagraph, which helps block the light of the sun itself, but the best chronograph is the moon passing in front of the sun.
Viewing this eclipse in person wont be easy for scientists or eclipse fans. Only a small portion of the path of totality crosses over any land. Most of that land, two dozen Indonesian islands ranging from Sumatra’s 50-plus million inhabitants to tiny uninhabited islands along the path, is embroiled in political turmoil.
The Slooh network of observatories has also dispatched telescopes along the Indonesian path of the eclipse. Slooh is hosting a similar live web feed from the telescopes beginning at 6:00 p.m. Eastern ahead of the eclipse starting at 7:37 p.m.
The Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco is offering a live webcast of this brief eclipse from Woleai Atoll, a tiny island in the Federated States of Micronesia. The webcast starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern March 8. Totality begins at 8:38 p.m. and will be over four minutes later.
One hundred sixty-three passengers aboard Alaska Air flight 870 will likely be the last humans to see the waning moments of the eclipse. Alaska Air is postponing departure of this flight by 25 minutes to give passengers a once-in-a-life-time view of the event. The plan began a year ago when Haden Planetarium astronomer Joe Rao noted this regularly scheduled flight between Anchorage, Alaska and Honolulu, Hawaii goes through the eclipse path.
The airline brought together dispatch, pilots, and maintenance personnel along with air traffic control to help ensure the plane will be in the right place at the right time. You can follow the progress of Alaska Air flight 870 once it takes off at 6 p.m. Eastern. Totality will be visible to passengers beginning at 10:35 pm Eastern for four minutes.
Flight 870 passengers, from their position above the clouds, may be the only ones to see the eclipse. It is monsoon season in Indonesia and Micronesia.
We will get our chance closer to home when a total eclipse passes across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21, 2017, including a small portion of extreme western North Carolina. Miss that one and you’ll need to mark your calendars for March 30, 2052, to see another total eclipse from US soil.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.