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Eclipse in the Outback 2002

Eclipse report by Timo Karhula

Already at the Zambia eclipse, I decided to view the next total solar eclipse in Australia on December 4th 2002. I had not yet planned how to travel from my father's home in Geraldton, Western Australia, who lives about 3000 km from the eclipse zone in Southern Australia. Only a week before my departure from Sweden, I got in touch with the noted comet observer, Andrew Pearce, from Perth. I asked him about his eclipse plans and it turned out that he was in want of a travel companion. We drove with his Subaru Liberty AWD through the vast Nullarbor plain. It is reputed to be the world's flattest, larger land area and is almost devoid of trees.. Between the Balladonia and Caiguna service stations is the longest absolutely straight road in Australia (maybe in the world), 160 km, and is undulating only a few metres in height. The debris of the SkyLab space-station plunged down near Balladonia in 1979, and in the motel, there is a small museum devoted to the event. We camped in tents and observed the starry skies when clear weather prevailed. After three days of driving, we arrived to Ceduna, where the eclipse duration would be the longest and the sun at the highest altitude in all of Australia. According to the weather forecast, there would be scattered clouds in Ceduna, but totally clear in the inland. Thus, we decided to proceed our trip. Our alternative plan was in fact to continue additional 720 km to Roxby Downs (80 km north of Woomera), where some of Andrew's observing friends would assemble.

We reached to the site on the day before the eclipse. Here were the well-known comet- and variable star observers Michael Mattiazzo, Terry Lovejoy, and from the Netherlands, Reinder Bouma and George Comello. Tony Henderson was our host and here also arrived the president of the Astronomical Society of South Australia (ASSA), Steve Cook, and amateurs from Sydney. This night we drove outside the town to observe the dark southern sky with Michael's NexStar 11 inch GPS telescope. We had organized so that we would meet the JPL scientist Charles Morris, and his wife, Carmelita Miranda. I have sent sporadic comet observations to him the past seven years, so it was great to meet him here, in the middle of nowhere! We were maybe the first to visually see the remote comet C/2001 Q4 (NEAT), whose perihelion is not until May 2004.

There was not a trace of a cloud in the sky for two days. The E-day was nothing but a long wait. The eclipse would take place as late as 7:41 pm. Our friends went out in good time to reserve favourable viewing spots by the road near Purple Downs, 30 km to the south. When arriving to our eclipse site, there were already hundreds of spectators gathered on both sides of the road. The authorities had lowered the maximum speed from 110 km/h to only 60 km/h this afternoon due to the eclipse. I had planned to record the event with my Sony CCD-TRV65E video-camera, as I had done during four central eclipses before. I used an Astro Baader solar filter in front of the objective. Unfortunately, there was a strong wind that somewhat disturbed my recordings. I chose the highest spot on a low hill, so that nobody would run in front of me during the precious moments. According to my GPS navigator, my coordinates were: latitude = -30d 48'52".2, longitude = +136d 54'14".4, elevation = 120 metres and I was situated 1270 metres from the exact central line. Michael had brought his 25x100 Oberwerk binoculars equipped with solar filters. I wore my eclipse T-shirt from Zambia and therefore many people came and chatted with me. Here was also a Finnish pair with whom I spoke in my native language. A couple of seconds after the 1st contact, the dark silhouette of the moon could already be seen on the sun's limb. I had placed a digital thermometer on the sandy ground, in the shade of a bush and it was initially a pleasant +26.3 C. Tony had brought an exclusive 4-inch Takahashi refractor, which everyone could look through. Beneath us, there was a big ASSA-poster, which apparently collected lots of people.

The totality would happen an hour later. Two minutes prior to totality, I started to videotape the thinning solar crescent. The temperature had dropped slightly to +23 degrees C. The light was strange, as if there were some filth in our eyes. 45 seconds before totality, a pair of doves were terrified by the sudden increase of darkness. Ten seconds before 2nd contact, I removed the solar filter and caught a fantastic sight with 18x of optical magnification. A long row of Baily's beads and a pink chromosphere formed the sun's upper, right part. This 'welding arc' disappeared slowly behind the moon. Five prominences were visible in the opposite side of the moon's limb. The largest prominence was situated toward the direction "half past 7". The smaller ones were at "half past 3", "6 o'clock", "8 o'clock" and "quarter to 9". The faintest part of the corona was at "9 o'clock" (due left). The shadow of the moon was racing toward us with a speed of 30 000 km/h like a huge, gray wall in the sky.. Totality! The crowd was cheering and screaming. Now, I was in a big hurry. Zoom in, zoom out, change exposure times in order to capture as much details as possible, from the bright inner corona to the faint outer corona. With the longest exposure time, the corona reached out to about 1.5 solar diameters and the surrounding sky turned to a deep-blue colour. A quick glance around, to see the 360-degree twilight around the horizon. Could Mercury and Antares be found? An observation with hand-held 8x20-binoculars. No, they were not seen with a swift look. Another diamond ring emerged which meant that a mere 28.5 second totality was over (27.6 seconds when taking the limb corrections into account). Put on the filter again. What a show!

This was definitely the most fleeting half-minute that I had experienced. Andrew admitted what others claim, that a total solar eclipse is the grandest astronomical phenomenon one can witness. He had been clouded out twice on earlier eclipses. This was George's tenth total eclipse but he failed to photograph this one because of a jamming camera just a few minutes before totality! My fourth total was especially pretty, being only five degrees over the horizon. On my tape, a black sun is hanging majestically over the landscape. Due to the short duration, this was my most challenging video-recording.

Half an hour later the sun would set. I had not before filmed the setting sun while in eclipse. It was great to see the moon dividing the sun into two parts while dropping behind the flat skyline. The left part of the sun was larger and the limb was distorted due to refraction. One or two seconds before the upper horn's disappearance, I managed to document a green flash! The last rays of the sun turned into a greenish hue on the LCD-screen (using no filters, of course).

This night we celebrated the successful event and we watched my recordings. It was time to leave the following morning, and we drove back to Perth in three days. Altogether, I drove 5800 km from Geraldton and back and probably I made the longest drive of all in Australia in order to see the "Eclipse in the Outback". Next, Turkey on 29th of March 2006?

/Timo Karhula