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What it takes to chase the total solar eclipse coast to coast

Most people will witness the August 21 eclipse for just a minute or two, if at all. But it is possible to see it for longer, if you can move fast enough.


You've probably heard by now that a total solar eclipse will move across the contiguous United States on August 21, blotting out the sun for a few brief minutes at each spot along the path as the Earth rotates through the shadow cast by the moon (also known as the "umbra").

But it almost seems cruel that a total eclipse is so rare and also so brief. Surely if you could move at the speed of the eclipse, you could see the whole thing, from coast to coast, rather than just settling for a few brief minutes on the plains of Wyoming or wherever you might manage to find yourself along the path of totality on Monday.

Unfortunately, the shadow will move across the surface of our planet at quite a clip. Driving east down the highway at top speed isn't going to extend your eclipse experience by any noticeable amount, aside from being an incredibly dangerous thing to do while staring up at the sky.

According to Xavier Jubier's very useful total eclipse map, the shadow will be moving fastest when it hits the coast of Oregon in the morning at a speed of over 2,400 miles per hour (3,862 km/h). At that velocity, your only hope of keeping up with the eclipse would be a flight in one of world's fastest fighter jets.

Because of the geometry of the Earth's surface, the eclipse shadow moves faster at the start and end of its path and at its slowest in the middle. That means that near the point of greatest eclipse in Kentucky, it will "slow down" to a mere 1,448 mph (2,330 km/h), which is just a little bit faster than the top speed of the commercial Concorde jet.


A Concorde jet like this one once chased a solar eclipse for over an hour in 1973.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

While the Concorde has been out of service for over a decade now, it was once used to chase a total solar eclipse all the way back in 1973

Flying at 1,370 mph (over 2,200 km/h) over the Sahara Desert, the supersonic plane flew astronomers and scientists within the umbra for a whopping 75 minutes, by far the longest eclipse experience had by any humans in history and more than 10 times longer than anyone could ever behold from the ground over the next several thousand years.

There is hope for the civilian dream of chasing an eclipse from the air in the future, though. A company called Boom Supersonic hopes to become the Concorde's successor with a passenger jet capable of 1,450 mph (roughly 2300 km/h).

Unfortunately, Boom won't take off until at least 2023, but that debut could come just in time to chase the next total solar eclipse that will cross the continent from Mexico to southeast Canada in 2024.

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