What's the most sunsets you could see on Earth in one day?

The childlike character from Asteroid B-612 tells the narrator in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic novella "The Little Prince" (1943) that he once saw 44 sun sets in one day. To keep ahead of the sun setting around his small rock, the prince only had to scooch on his chair.
Although Earth is larger than Asteroid B-612 by a large margin, could Earthlings surpass that record? Also, consider how many sunsets you could see in one day.

Hypothetically, you could stay in constant sunset if you started from a place on Earth where it was setting. As a publicity stunt for a watch, an ex-NATO pilot and a photographer attempted to track the sunset across the globe in 2014. Although they didn't make it, their efforts provide a glimpse into the science behind sunset chasing.

Related: What color sunsets are on other planets?

In theory, how to follow a sunset

Gerd Kortemeyer explained that at any given moment, sunlight can illuminate a portion of the Earth as if it were a lamp.

An associate professor of Physics at Michigan State University. The planet's eastward movement causes a particular location to pass through that area of illumination, experiencing sunrise, sunset, and day.

Kortemeyer stated, "If you want the sunrise or the sunset to follow, you have to fly so that you're just on the borderline" between the illuminated area and the unilluminated area. This means that you must remain in the same place relative to the sun, even as the Earth rotates beneath you. It's like the Earth is a treadmill, and the sun a ceiling lamp. Kortemeyer explained that because Earth rotates towards the east, it would be necessary to fly west at the same speed Earth spins.

According to HowStuffWorks, to do this at the Equator (where the planet's maximum circumference is around its axis, it would take you to fly at 1,000 mph (1 609 km/h). This is a very fast speed. Most commercial aircraft fly at a cruising speed between 460 and 575 mph (740-925 km/h), while the Blue Angels display team of the U.S. Navy flies at a maximum speed 700 mph (1126 km/h) during airshows. As you get closer to the poles, your circumference around the rotational axis decreases. The speed at which Earth rotates -- the distance traveled in a certain time period -- also decreases. Kortemeyer stated that the faster you move, the higher your latitude.

The Little Prince tells the story of a prince who recalls seeing 44 sunsets within a single day. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

"Watch" me trying

Citizen watches teamed up with Wieden+Kennedy in 2014 to promote the Eco-Drive Satellite Wave F100 watch's ability to automatically adjust to changes in time zones within seconds, Fast Company reported. The watch's ability adjust was documented by the firm, which flew through all time zones. To attempt the feat of flying through all time zones at sunset, the firm assembled a team that included Jonathan Nicol (ex-NATO pilot), Simon Roberts (UK-based photographer) and Tristan Patterson (filmmaker).

They did not attempt it at the equator. Fast Company reports that they flew high into the Arctic at 80 degrees latitude. This is where Earth rotates at approximately 180 mph (290 km/h). Roberts explained that the team started in Iceland and flew east and north to reach the 80th parallel north. The imaginary line running north to south designates the prime Meridian. From there, they turned around and headed west to chase the sunset across Greenland and Canada.

Related: What if I weighed less at the Equator?

Patterson made a short film about the original plan, which included flying over Russia and stopping in Siberia to refuel. Roberts stated that Russia refused permission for them to land. Russia and Ukraine were at war in February. This increased tensions between Russia, the West and Russia. Roberts and Patterson say that tensions boiled down to Patterson's plan to chase the sunset. They decided to not fly through Russian airspace because they did not have permission to refuel in Russia. Patterson stated that they flew west for eight hours and passed through Greenland before landing in Resolute Bay (Canada) They stopped at that point and flew over the Bering Strait to Russia instead of continuing.

The political challenge that prevented the team from setting off to chase the sunset across the globe was, in the end, not a scientific problem. Patterson explained to Live Science that Patterson spent so much time and effort trying to solve the math equation or science of how to actually do the thing of staying at sunset for one day. Then Patterson said that the shake-up of it was this out-of nowhere political situation.

It was exciting to chase the sunset for eight hours. Roberts stated that there was a general excitement at being in the perpetual state of a sunset. It is romantic to feel the dusk and sunset. It was an amazing idea to try and remain in that state for 24hrs. It was a remarkable concept.

Patterson directed the 5-minute film and an ad featuring Roberts' sunset photographs.

Others sunset chasers

Concorde jets could fly at speeds of 1,354 miles (2,179 km/h) and could keep up with Earth's orbit, even at the equator. The supersonic jets were named this because they flew faster that sound and stopped flying in 2003. Although they may not have seen the sunset, Concorde's flight from London to Dulles International Airport in Virginia allowed passengers to see two sunsets: one while the plane was taking off in London, and another as it landed in Dulles. Kortemeyer stated that Concorde was "famous for this."

According to The Atlantic, astronauts aboard the International Space Station can see 16 sunrises or 16 sunsets each day. The station orbits Earth approximately once every 90 minutes.

Saint-Exupery was an avid aviator. Perhaps he was familiar with the challenges that these sunset chasers faced. It's not surprising that he pictured the Little Prince setting out to chase the sunset by simply shifting his chair.

Original publication on Live Science