An obsession exists in the netherworlds of astronomy, and its bite is just as addictive as any; that of the secret world of total solar eclipse chasing. Not cure has yet been devised. No support group exists. (Although it might be fun to imagine such a beast in an alternate reality; “sure, I couldn’t afford that 2nd mortgage, but I told myself it was to complete saros 92…and I didn’t have a problem!)
Lunar eclipses rarely involve travel; just be on the right Moon-facing hemisphere of the Earth at the right time, and one will surely come your way. Hence, most places can expect a total lunar eclipse every couple of years or so, sometimes even two a year. But I’ve never known anyone to book a trek to Antarctica to view a weak penumbral. Total solar eclipses are a different story. The maximum width of the Moon’s shadow as it crosses the Earth’s surface is only 150 miles across. To spot this rarest of natural spectacles, one must stand along this narrow path. Rarely does the Moon’s shadow beat a path to your door; it seems to like to hang out in barren tundra and war zones. But those who have made the journey and braved cholera, frostbite, or kidnapping have been struck to the soul with the ethereal beauty of a total solar eclipse. And for the faint-of-third world travel, cruises now exist were you can watch a well choreographed eclipse from shipboard, vodka-martini in hand. Probably no subculture is more rabid in their pursuit, although birders and orchid hunters might tie for a close second. Have we here at Astroguyz seen one? No, although I did find a reason to visit a friend in Toledo, Ohio during the 1994 annular eclipse . But I know that die-hards will shout: “An annular eclipse is not the same!” Indeed, you are correct, sir. Seeing a total solar eclipse is on our Bucket List, since it seems fashionable to make Bucket Lists this year (and cliché the next!) Consider this a manifesto of sorts, as I’m an eclipse virgin and be I’ll be planning to mainline totality right along with you!
The Planning: Of course, all great journeys begin here. To group tour or strike out on your own? We’ve had good and bad experience with both in our world travels. A group tour means that all of the nuts and bolts stuff (i.e., lodging, transport, etc) is taken care of; it also means that you might get drug along for something you don’t care very much for, such a conga dancing. We’re here for the eclipse, right? Solo traveling can give you the flexibility to strike out on your own; it also means that the planning is solely up to you. Totality waits for no man; the free and easy let’s-see-were-this-bus-takes-us approach might not be the best bet. A good rule of thumb; small tour groups can be fun, but large ones tend to turn into a circus. I saw Egypt in 1991 with a very motivated group of 11 people; however, I was ready to ditch a group of +50 in Göreme, Turkey. Shop around, call ahead, and utilize that great modern resource, the Internet. See what other folks are saying about certain tour agencies. Some groups offering trips to upcoming eclipses are;
Also, the site, Eclipse Chasers, has all the how-to’s from an experienced veteran that you could ever need.
Here be Vagabonds… Astroguy(z) in Israel.
Cruises targeting eclipses are also a good option; a majority of most eclipse paths traverse the oceans of our water covered world. A cruise ship also allows mobility in those last hours leading up to totality, as it’s possible to chase down holes in the cloud cover. A minus is that astrophotography can be tricky from the pitching deck of a ship!
And of course, you’ll need to arm yourself with knowledge. Fred Espenaks’ web page at NASA is the ultimate eclipse chasers’ guide; another good site to gauge the weather across the path of the shadow is Eclipser. Also, a simple but indispensable tool for the North America astronomical outlook (will they ever go international?) is the vaunted Clear Sky Chart.
The Gear: What to bring? This is the event of a life time; you definitely want to document it. However, totality seldom lasts more than seven minutes; do you really want to spend that precious time chasing gear gremlins? I would say to honor the golden rule of travel; pack light, pack right. A decent SLR camera, wide angle and zoom lenses (50-300mm), and detachable white light filters for partial stages would constitute a simple but effective package. These can even be homemade. A Hydrogen Alpha scope would be handy as well during partial phases. Binocs with a white light filter would also be crucial for eclipse spotting. Don’t forget that you’ll have to lug and possibly get all of this strange looking gear past under-paid customs officials. I myself would opt to fire the laptop down during totality and just enjoy the event. Remember, in astrophotography, simple works. A friend with a video camera would also serve as a cool documentary of the entire event. Check all gear twice, and then check it again. Familiarize yourself with your equipment and practice shooting with it well before crunch time. Better to make your mistakes on a non-eclipse day! Have spare batteries ready and charged, and keep them warm, say in a jacket pocket, if shooting in below freezing temperatures. Speaking of which, don’t forget to dress for the occasion, especially in frosty climes. David Levy once recounted how he nearly lost some finger tips to frostbite during an expedition to the 2003 eclipse in Antarctica. Layering up is you best bet, and a heavy head covering will keep you from loosing precious body heat. Wear two sets of gloves; a heavy outer set and a thin inner layer, for use when you need to pull the outer one off and fine tune equipment. In warmer climes, don’t forget the sunscreen and hydration. UV can penetrate high thin cirrus (i.e., you can get a sunburn on a cloudy day!) Even that partially eclipsed sun can pack a UV punch!
The Event: Your whole life has been leading up to this. Devising a check list would be critical to get the most out of totality; there will be plenty of leisure time leading up through the partial phases, but totality will come and go blindingly fast. Most of your crucial shots will occur at ingress and egress; that’s the point that phenomena such as Bailey’s beads and the diamond ring effect can be seen. Don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the spectacle! Other natural phenomena may be noted; roosters may crow, temperatures might drop, and shadow bands may dance across the landscape. This is also the one time that the pearly white corona of the Sun may be seen!
The Eurasian Eclipse of 2006.
Coping with non-eclipse time: Don’t forget to indulge in the culture around you, and engage them in a little astronomy, as well. Most folks have never seen a telescope, let alone looked through one. An impromptu star party might be in the offing!
Some prime up and coming eclipses: Have I piqued your interest? Here are some of the up and coming highlights;
-The next Total Solar Eclipse: 22 July 22nd, 2009 Pacific-China-India. Clocking in at 6 minutes 39 seconds, this is the longest totality until 2132. This one has several cruise line options , and also passes over a good swath of the human population.
-The toughest eclipse to get to: March 20th, 2015 in the North Atlantic-Faroe Islands. Narwhal steak, anyone?
-Don’t feel like leaving the U.S. of A.? Stick around until August 21st, 2017. The three way meet up of the states of Missouri, Illonois, and Kentucky will see another eclipse a scant seven years later, on April 8th, 2024!
Vulcan’s last Stand: The Eclipse Expedition of 1878.
Some fun filled eclipse facts:
-The fact that the angular diameter of the Moon is approximately the same size as the Sun is a happy circumstance of the epoch we’re in; the Moon is receding from us at 3.8 cm per year, and total eclipses will cease around 600 million A.D.
- The most rare type of eclipse is a hybrid annular-total. This last occurred on April 9th, 2005 and will happen again on November 3rd, 2013.
- Eclipses come in saros series. These last 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours, and then the entire cycle shifts 120 degrees in longitude. On average, any particular spot on Earth experiences a total solar eclipse once every 370 years; A maximum of seven eclipses can occur in any given year, two solar and five lunar. The maximum duration possible for totality is 7 minutes & 31 seconds.
-Eclipses have worked themselves into history; an eclipse was said to have been seen during the battle of Stiklestad in 1030 A.D. The eclipse of 1919 was used as an opportunity to test Einstein’s’ theory of relativity; an eclipse of the Sun also enticed an expedition to Wyoming which included none other than Thomas Edison in 1878 in search of the spurious planet Vulcan.
-Comets have been sighted during eclipses, such as the eclipse comet of 1948.
Myths: You can never stare directly at an eclipsed Sun. True; even a 99% eclipsed sun can pack quite an optical punch. But during totality the eclipsed Sun is quite safe to look at with the naked eye. Sometimes, public safety concerns seem to win out, and folks get the message not to look at the Sun, period. Children are rushed indoors, and windows are shuttered and locked. It’s as if the very air is permeated with some sort of insidious “sun-poison”… Seconds after totality begins, the filter glasses can come off. Just have them handy for the ending!
In culture, there are almost more fictional eclipses than you can shake a Ha filter at; solar eclipses play into the movies Ladyhawke, Apocalypto, and the film adaptation of Delores Claiborne, to name a few. I’d love to hear of more!
Of course, folks have always seen eclipses as bad omens; folks in medieval Europe would take to the streets, banging pots and pans to drive away the dragon that had eaten the Sun. This seemed to have worked in their minds, because the Sun always came back! Some more interesting eclipse tales can be had at this link.
I hope I’ve whetted the old globe trotting wanderlust with this one. And don’t forget to see that exotic culture all around you, both past and present, while eclipse chasing! Of course, that modern culture may be busy texting or watching American Idol, just like your teenager back home. And for those of you that can’t make the journey, oodles of live feeds abound; search the web a day or two prior and something is bound to turn up. I hope to see you at the 2009 eclipse, time and funds willing or at my fall back, the North American eclipse of 2017! Rest assured, if the 2009 expedition does indeed take shape, we’ll be blogging about it! Next week; how bout some gloves for that Arctic Eclipse?
Totality…coming soon to a shadow path near you? (Credit: Fred Espenak/NASA).