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On Sunday, 'Umbraphiles' Will Watch Total Solar Eclipse From 39,000 Feet

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CORRECTION-BYLINE The sun is covered by

The sun is covered by the moon during a total solar eclipse in Varanasi, India, on July 22, 2009.  Pedru Ugarte/AFP hide caption

toggle caption Pedru Ugarte/AFP

Commodities trader Rick Brown is an umbraphile.

That neologism, coined by astronomer Glenn H Schneider, describes someone "addicted to the glory and majesty of total solar eclipses."

In his lifetime, Brown has seen 12 of them. Schneider "has basked in the moon's umbral shadow" on 28 occasions. This week, they're in Papeete, Tahiti, to see another one.

A total eclipse of the sun takes place every 16 months, or so. To witness one, you have to be willing to travel — to far-flung places, like Bolivia (1994), Bulgaria (1999), and Zambia (2001).

"[Fly] your Learjet up to Nova Scotia, to see the total eclipse of the sun." Cue the Carly Simon!

On Sunday, Brown, Schneider and a few dozen fellow umbraphiles will board a modified Airbus 319 in the Tahitian capital, just before the eclipse begins. From 39,000 feet in the air, high about the South Pacific, they'll experience a total eclipse for more than nine minutes.

"Since we're traveling with the shadow for a time, and moving along with it, the shadow will be passing over us slower than it would be if we were on the ground," Brown explained to NPR's Melissa Block. "We are able to slow that shadow by almost 500 miles an hour."

He arranged the "TSE 2010 Eclipse Charter Flight," which costs $9,000 per person. If you're willing to share a window with another person, the ticket price is $6,500 each.

That's not inexpensive, especially with the additional cost of hotel accommodations and airfare to Papeete. Still, a total of 33 eclipse chasers signed up.

"We came up with a bunch of people pretty quickly," Brown said. "After that, it sort of slowed down, obviously because of the price tag."

He and Schneider assembled a group of scientists, enthusiasts, and French-Polynesian dignitaries. According to Brown, the price is worth it.

"I really have never read any description of an eclipse that's really captured exactly what it feels like, because it's kind of like trying to describe love," he said. "I think that it's nature's way of showing to a person how powerful nature is."

Brown and Schneider hope to set a record, for "the longest duration of totality ever observed with a non-experimental or non-military aircraft in history."

In 1973, seven scientists on a Concorde flight intercepted the path of a solar eclipse over North Africa. The duration of totality: 74 minutes.



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