Fly me to the moon

It’s rare to have moments of joy and wonder on overnight intercontinental flights …at least not when you fly economy. But sometimes the stars literally align and amazing things happen.

We were flying home from Rome to Addis Ababa on Monday night, the three of us squeezed into tight quarters on a nearly fully flight. We were glad to have three seats in the middle since that meant that at least one of us could sleep (for Nadia, three seats means a princess-sized bed!).

Around 4am, I woke up and got up to stretch my legs. I walked around the plane, circling around to use the loo. All the rows were occupied, with all the window seats filled with sleeping passengers. The portholes in the bulkheads were just too small to allow me to see anything. Grumbling, I headed back to my seat.

Determined to climb over someone if I had to, I got out my camera and headed back down the length of the plane. Fortunately, someone had got up and there was a free window seat on the right side of the plane. I got in and looked out.

Serendipity. The window was perfect. Just beyond the wingtip was the moon, full and bright. It was a “supermoon,” bigger than normal since it was at perigee (closest point to Earth in its orbit), 50,000km closer to the Earth than at apogee (furthest point). Coincidentally, this supermoon was passing through the Earth’s shadow: such a supermoon eclipse only happens every 30 years or so.

flyingmoonI took out my camera and snapped away. Unfortunately, the plane was vibrating too much and there was too much ambient light reflecting in the window to get a really clear photograph. Instead I put the camera away and enjoyed the sight.

The moon doesn’t go dark during a lunar eclipse, since it gets some ambient light bent through the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, it turns a rusty red – some people call it a “blood moon.” For me, this was no harbinger of doom but a gorgeous sight that speaks about how beautifully the universe works and how much we know and continue to learn.

We know when eclipses happen and can predict to the minute when they start and end for any spot on Earth. I knew that 4am would be the perfect time to look out the right side of the airplane as we flew over the Sudan-Ethiopia border and see the moon in our shadow. Eclipses work like clockwork and show how knowable and predictable the universe is. Instead of demystifying the universe, however, this just increases my wonder and amazement at how perfectly it all works.

Meanwhile, it was a gorgeous sight. I got up and returned to my cramped seat with a huge grin on my face. My knees and back would get relief later. For now, I was filled with wonder and appreciation for our beautiful universe.

See better photos of the supermoon eclipse here.

Featured image: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse by Nasa/Aubrey Gemignani CC-BY-NC-ND

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