Viewing an eclipse: Barry Landy

Eclipse Cruise, July 2009

In the summer of 2008 Ros and I went to the Arctic to see a total solar eclipse.

As I reported in the bulletin of September 2008, despite being in the best possible location for viewing this eclipse we experienced it but did not see it, as the ship was in 100% thick sea mist. The experience was quite mystical but not the same as a proper viewing.

I decided that in the summer of 2009 we would try again. All solar eclipses take place at Rosh Chodesh since at the instant of the solar eclipse the moon is new by definition; both these eclipses took place on Rosh Chodesh Av.

Total eclipses are visible within a narrow but long track which follows a curving path over the globe as the Earth rotates. The track of the 2009 total eclipse started in India, crossed China and then went out into the Pacific, touching the very Southern tip of Japan. The point of maximum eclipse is normally where the eclipse happens at local midday and this was out in the Pacific to the South East of Iwo Jima which is a small island to the South East of Japan, and famous for a major World War II battle.

I chose to go to see the eclipse on a cruise ship for two reasons; firstly since the position of maximum eclipse was in the ocean the only way to be at that location would be on a ship, and secondly because of the weather. In August most of the East of China is cloudy as it is the storm season, and so the chance of actually seeing the eclipse there was poor. I certainly did not want to miss seeing the eclipse a second time! Another advantage of being on a ship is that it is very easy for it to change location, so that if, as actually happened, the day is partially cloudy, it is possible to move to a break in the clouds.

I picked a ship which had been chartered specially for the eclipse by "astronomy tours". This had the additional benefit that as part of the deal they had arranged a full educational programme (or as the Americans put it "Enrichment Program") targeted at anything to do with the science of astronomy and things vaguely related.

The cruise itself started and ended in Beijing, which gave us an opportunity to see the Great Wall of China (see photograph on the back page) which totally matched our expectations. From Beijing we sailed to South Korea, and from there to Kagoshima on the South Island of Japan (Kyushu), and then towards the eclipse site. On eclipse morning we sailed past Iwo Jima. The previous day we had had two lectures on the battle; one of the passengers on the ship was a USA Navy veteran who was present at the battle, and another, who presented one of the lectures, is a nephew of a veteran of the battle.

At the time of the eclipse it was clear that the really serious people had brought with an amazing array of equipment. I had brought my video camera for which I had arranged a solar filter, and a tripod, and Ros had her camera. All the gurus had tripods and many had telescopes; all had serious cameras.

There was a rehearsal on day -1. The ship slowed to the speed it would be sailing during the eclipse (for maximum stability the ship needs to be in motion at about 7 knots) and on the same heading. This enabled people to choose a place on deck and to set up their equipment. We found a relatively quiet corner with three other groups and set up two loungers and my tripod. I checked the alignment by getting the sun in focus. We needed the loungers so that we could watch the eclipse lying down and avoid cricking our necks by looking at the sun nearly overhead (83 degrees elevation).

July 22 was eclipse day, and on ship time the start of totality (the first moment ot total eclipse) would be at 11:25 (12:25 local time and spot on for local noon).

We woke up VERY early (not surprisingly) and were delighted to see blue sky and sunshine. At 6am we went up onto deck to have a walk and were taken aback to see how many people were already setting up (basically for deck space it is first come first served). We decided to have a short walk and then stand guard over our location (which somebody had already tried to muscle in on!). So from about 7am one of us was always there. We even had breakfast in shifts! During the morning we made the promised small diversion to sail past Iwo Jima, and then moved onto the eclipse track. Clouds came and went, and we even had a very brief shower, but, as the meteorologists had predicted, the captain found an excellent clear spot as eclipse time approached.

And then the magic moment when the moon just touched the sun (first contact). Through our solar viewers (very very dark glasses cutting out about 99.999% of the sun's light) we could see a tiny amount of sun obscured. This dark patch gradually got larger until the sun was just a crescent and then, about one hour and 25 minutes after the first contact, the sun was completely obscured (second contact) and we saw the diamond ring, a ring of light from the corona, and a single point of extreme brightness where the sun is shining through a lunar valley. We could then take off the solar glasses and view the sun with the naked eye and with binoculars, while lying back on our loungers. The spectacle is absolutely wonderful and completely unforgettable. Even though we had had a long build up to the event, and we knew intellectually what to expect, it did not disappoint in the slightest; indeed, the reality exceeded my expectations.

The moon shows as a black disc where the sun should be; outside that disc we could see the ring of the corona. Since this was a long eclipse (6 minutes 43 seconds) we also had time to look at other things. We noted the 360 degree sunset - all round the horizon the light was a sunset red, since the horizon was outside the central area of the moon's shadow. During the eclipse we could observe the light intensity changing. An altogether amazing experience that will remain with us always. We recited berachot, Oseh Maaseh Bereshit, and Shehecheyanu. Then all too soon the eclipse ended with another wonderful diamond ring and suddenly it seemed bright again. We heard later that someone had proposed to his girl friend during the eclipse - and she accepted! They quipped that the girl had been given three diamond rings.

We celebrated with champagne, and gradually came down to earth.

Barry Landy, August 2009