Remembering when astronomers chased total solar eclipse in Concorde

Remembering when astronomers chased total solar eclipse in Concorde
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On June 30, 1973, Concorde 001, the world’s fastest supersonic jet, took off from Las Palmas in the Spanish Canary Islands on a journey that would forever etch its name into eclipse history.

Flying at an altitude of 55,000 feet (17,000 meters), the Concorde managed to extend the eclipse’s duration of totality to an astonishing 74 minutes. It raced the moon’s shadow across the Earth at a blistering 1,500 mph (2,400 km/h). In contrast, the eclipse lasts a mere 7 minutes, and 4 seconds on the ground.

The flight was a collaboration between scientists from France, Britain, and the United States. Onboard were observers from prestigious institutions eager to study the sun’s corona, chromosphere, and the intensity of its light above the Earth’s atmosphere reports Space.com. These included the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Paris Observatory, and the University of Aberdeen.

“We intercepted the totality and stayed within it for 74 minutes before descending and landing in the African nation of Chad,” recounted Donald Liebenberg, a scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory on the flight.

“At 74 minutes, our group aboard the Concorde set a record for the amount of time spent in totality that has never been broken. It was an experience I will never forget.”

Chasing the moon’s shadow

The path of totality that day was a mere 156 miles (251 kilometers) wide. The Concorde, flying at Mach 2 (1,350 mph or 2,200 km/h), raced along the Tropic of Cancer, keeping pace with the moon’s shadow as it traversed Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, and Niger before landing in Chad.

In addition to the unprecedented duration of totality, the scientists on board were also able to witness the “first contact” and “third contact”— the beginning and end of the eclipse— when viewers on the ground see a brief display of Baily’s beads and the “diamond ring effect.”

A legendary flight

The Concorde’s historic 1973 flight remains legendary among eclipse chasers. No other aircraft has since been able to match its record. While Concorde did attempt a few other eclipse flights over the years, including in 1999, none could replicate the sheer scale of its 1973 achievement.

As the world eagerly awaits the next total solar eclipse, set to occur on April 8, 2024, Concorde 001’s remarkable journey continues to inspire and captivate those dreaming of chasing the moon’s shadow.

Soaring into the future

Concorde’s retirement from service left fliers wanting for both supersonic and eclipse flights. Airlines such as JSX, United, and Delta are offering dedicated flights through the path of totality. 

Commercial supersonic flights could be soon possible, thanks to the efforts of NASA’s QUESST mission and Boom Supersonic. On January 12, NASA unveiled the X-59, an aircraft designed to muffle the sonic boom into a more palatable “thump”.

Boom Supersonic’s demonstrator XB-1 successfully completed a flight earlier this year, soaring to a height of 7,120 feet and a top speed of 238 knots (273 mph).

In 2019, LATAM Airlines doubled the duration of totality to 9 minutes for its 43 passengers aboard a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. According to Space.com, each passenger had paid $6,750.