Solar eclipse chasers: Snapping shots at 44,000 feet

Photographer Ben Cooper joined a crew aboard a flight from Bermuda to chase the rare hybrid solar eclipse as it sped across the Atlantic Ocean toward western Africa.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read
Ben Cooper/www.launchphotography.com

The passengers onboard a 12-person Dassault Falcon 900B were traveling at nearly 500 mph, yet they still had only 1 second to witness the totality, or the moment during a total solar eclipse when the moon entirely obscures the sun and ushers in a special kind of darkness across a narrow track 100 miles wide on the Earth's surface.

It was last Sunday, November 3, and the date marked the first hybrid solar eclipse since 2005. Hybrid solar eclipses are rare and involve a transition from an annular eclipse -- where the moon appears slightly smaller than the sun, creating an annulus or "ring of fire" as it's called -- to a total solar eclipse wherein the moon and sun align perfectly and a diamond-colored circle of white light from the star's corona becomes visible to a small subset of surface dwellers.

A standard total solar eclipse occurs roughly once every 18 months. However, the next hybrid eclipse isn't slated to occur until 2023. The next non-hybrid, total solar eclipse isn't until March of 2015.

Former NASA photographer Ben Cooper, one of the passengers of that jet chartered from Bermuda by a group of eclipse chasers that ranged from professional astronomers to hobbyists, was able to capture stunning photographs of the phenomenon in that tiny time window.

"We only had a second of opportunity. If we were another second off, we wouldn't have gotten an eclipse," Cooper said. "You have to be on the path to see the total eclipse. Anywhere else you'll just get a partial one," he added.

Stunning shots of the 2012 total solar eclipse (pictures)

See all photos

That meant flying a perfectly timed route from Bermuda across the Atlantic, chasing the shadow of the eclipse as it shot across the surface at roughly 8,000 mph. The eclipse typically slows down on to the middle of the its path, equalling more than 1,200 mph, or the the speed of the moon's orbit -- about 2,288 mph -- subtracted from the speed of the rotation of the Earth.

Cooper did concede that the debate is ongoing on whether or not he and the crew experienced totality in that 1-second time frame, or came right on the edge. Totality, he explained on his Web site, lasted for roughly 99 seconds over the ocean west of Gabon, a much smaller amount than a typical total solar eclipse.

Ben Cooper/www.launchphotography.com

Eclipse chasing is an age-old activity and has become increasingly more sophisticated as aviation and photographic technology has advanced. Chasers in 1973 utilized the maximum speed of a modified Concorde airliner to keep up with the speed of an eclipse's shadow for 74 minutes, cruising at nearly 1,500 mph across sub-Saharan Africa. Now, much smaller groups of hobbyists can take to the skies in cheaper, albeit slower, aircrafts to partake in the chase.

Due to the spiritual nature some attribute to syzygy -- the term for when three celestial bodies align -- and the perception among ancient cultures that such events were supernatural, total solar eclipses have become worldwide celebrations worthy of multiday treks and cross-continent exploration. In December of 2002, 40,000 people ventured to the Australian outback to witness one.

Ben Cooper/launchphotography.com

For Cooper, who has photographed nearly every astrological phenomenon under the sun and beyond, a usual once-in-a-lifetime event for most people has meant four solar eclipses. The November 3 hybrid solar eclipse was his first viewed from an airplane.

"I was shooting about seven frames per second," he said, noting that modern-day digital cameras are so advanced that no special add-ons are needed to capture such an event, which typically requires special eye protection for viewing from the ground. Cooper used a telephoto and wide-angle lens to achieve the photographs. "Getting the photos right in terms of light, it was definitely not easy," he added. "There was absolutely no time to adjust."

Cooper, who notably photographed the final years of NASA's space shuttle program, plans to be on the next eclipse-chasing flight in March of 2015. Until then, he has a few ideas in his shrinking list of spectacular sights to witness and capture, which still happens to include a Soyuz launch to the International Space Station.

"I haven't done the aurora yet," he said. "I'll have to get started on that soon enough."