Millions Witness Century's Longest Solar Eclipse

Eclipses are regarded as a mixed blessing by many in China and India. According to ancient Chinese culture, eclipses are tied either to natural disasters or to deaths in the imperial family. In the run-up to today's eclipse, state media and public officials assured people that all services would function normally.

In India, astrologers said that the eclipse could bring bad luck to people. Reuters reported that expectant mothers requested doctors to advance or delay births to avoid complications and dispel misfortune.

Buddhist monks in Thailand led followers in mass prayers until the eclipse ended, to ward off any ill effects.

Eclipse Exposes Sun's Corona

A solar eclipse takes place when the moon passes between Earth and the sun. If the moon's inner shadow falls on Earth's surface at that moment, the sun's light is blocked by the moon. A total solar eclipse only happens about once every 18 months and is only visible from the path of the moon's inner shadow.

On a clear day, it also exposes the sun's corona (or halo-like outer atmosphere) that is usually invisible in daylight.

A week ago, Maley arrived in China with 40 armchair astronomers and, after days traveling from Shanghai to Tibet and back, the group planned to venture to a nearby city early Wednesday morning to watch the main event. From their viewing site, they expected to see five minutes and 26 seconds of totality, starting at 9:35 a.m. local time (9:35 p.m. ET tonight).

Maley has led eclipse tours since 1970 (across more than 22 countries) but said he has watched the numbers of eclipse chasers climb in recent years.

Interest in Eclipse Tourism Grows

"Interest has been slowly getting larger, year by year," he said Tuesday, adding that the upswing started most clearly in the 1980s and 1990s as Americans and Europeans starting having more disposable income with which to travel.

In addition to his own group in Shanghai, he said his organization is leading two other similarly sized groups in the city and another one in the Gilbert Islands. While many of the participants are also scientists, he said, they span all kinds of occupations and all ages.

Jim Pritchett, a travel agent with Bartlesville, Okla.-based Spears Travel, said Tuesday about half of the 39 people on his company's eclipse tour in China are veteran chasers. The average participant has been on seven or eight of its tours, he estimated.

Spears tours are especially attractive as they are led by Fred Espenak, a recently retired leading NASA scientist, widely known as "Mr. Eclipse."

Company Offers 41,000-Foot Views of Eclipse

"They're like family, basically," Pritchett said of the eclipse enthusiasts. "It's something that they're very much interested in. Once it gets in their blood, it's there."

For tours with Ring of Fire or Spears, participants pay about $3,600 to $3,800 for a 10-day package (not including airfare). But other travel firms offer more focused experiences.

Cox and Kings, a travel company in India, was offering a three-hour flight on board a Boeing 727-700 aircraft that would follow the path of the eclipse at 41,000 feet. Passengers were to board a plane in New Delhi before dawn, then fly southeast to Gaya and back. Depending on where they are on the plane, seats cost from about $600 to $1,600.

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