Eclipse Report & more pictures
29 Mar 2006 - Eclipse Day
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Dawn on eclipse day. Notice Venus to the right. Anticipation. We almost had the desert to ourselves and not a cloud to be seen! 0935UT: 25 minutes after 1st Contact. 
After what little sleep I had, I stepped outside the tent at around 5am to visit the conveniences, and was greeted by a fine sight of the Milky Way, with the bright galactic centre in Sagittarius, too low to see properly from the UK. Venus, ridiculously bright, was also rising in the east. I didn't mean to get up so early, but having done so I went to the edge of the camp to get beyond the worst of the lights to watch the dawn and look for Mercury. There was not a cloud in the sky - as it was to remain all day - but Mercury did not reveal itself to the naked eye in the rapidly lightening sky, so I returned for a little more "sleep".

People began getting up at around 8am, and during and after a picnic breakfast I began to assemble my two Helios telescopes - the tripod legs from the bottom of my case and the mount and business end from the metal briefcases. Meanwhile, the Jackson kids, Charles and Josie, were despatched with their Dad Brent to fill up the two bags I brought to act as counterweights on the equatorial mounts. About a kilo of sand would do on the scope for visual use and a kilo and a half for the one to which I would attach the camera, but they enjoyed filling them with desert pebbles instead, a few of which I have kept as souvenirs of the big day.

At around 10am, 70 minutes before first contact, the astronomers / eclipse veterans amonst us (principally Michael, Phil and myself) gave a short talk on what to expect and how to safely view the event with the eclipse glasses provided and the various pieces of equipment we had brought with us. We then headed off into the desert taking our equipment, plus water, chairs and a table, with us. We headed south for around 400m as we judged this direction was upwind of the camp (less dust equals clearer skies) and just far enough to avoid any crowd developing around us. As it turned out, other people seemed to be quite thinly spread out and there were no crowds at all - I think a good many people actually decided to watch the event sitting outside their own tents.

Before the start of the eclipse, those with equipment were busy setting up telescopes and cameras, and assisting those with basic cameras to get the best out of the forthcoming spectacle. There were only three telescopes amongst all of us - my two plus Dean's 5-inch Celestron, just about manageable on a small tripod, a fair few had cameras with good lenses, while Phil and Sonya were each going to attempt to video the event. Amanda and Michael were also interviewed for Libyan TV - the crew were fascinated that people had come from as far away as Australia to see this eclipse.

First Contact was due at 0909UT (11:09 local time) and I confirmed moments later that the first bite out of the Sun had indeed appeared - as I saw it in the telescope, on the left hand side. With the naked eye or binocular view the Moon would travel from lower right to top left (west to east) across the Sun, and I have orientated all the eclipse photos on this page accordingly.

There was a steady queue of people at my visual telescope to monitor the progress of the Moon creeping across the Sun. This I equipped with a Baader Planetarium mylar filter, which gave the Sun a rather eerie blue colour, while I reserved by Orion glass filter for use with the camera so the Sun's appearance would remain in keeping with my pictures from previous eclipses - the more natural colour here also attracted viewers. Three small sunspots were also visible towards the eastern limb of the Sun, which might provide some interest as they are eclipsed and may perhaps create some flames (Prominences) in the Sun's outer atmosphere during totality.

With the activity, the interval between First and Second contact seemed to pass quickly, but in truth was unusually long at 1h 25m. Normally the Moon covers its own (and Sun's) diameter in around an hour, but with the time approaching local noon, and with us being just 28 degrees from the equator, we were really benefitting from the Earth's rotation (around 900mph / 1400 kph) carrying us substantially in the direction of the Moon's shadow, thereby extending the duration of the partial and total phases.

By 0945UT (11:45 local) the Moon had reached nearly 50% of the way across the Sun and it clear that the temperature was starting to fall and that a gusty wind was getting up. Although not rigorously scientific, I asked Judith, who had a Nokia mobile phone that measures remperature, to keep an eye on the temperature during the eclipse, and it recorded a drop of 11 degrees centigrade from 34 degrees at 1000UT (12 noon local) to 23 degrees at 1025 (1225 local), moments before totality.

It was also becoming apparent that the light was beginning to change, especially the brightness of the sky. This was much earlier than I had noticed in previous eclipses and was perhaps something to do with our exposed location and unusually clear sky. At around this time Venus, some 40 degrees west of the Sun, began to become visible, and by 1000UT (12:00 local) was appearing quite bright. Fun was also had observing our shadows, getting more intense and sharply defined as the Sun grew thinner, and projecting images of the narrowing crescent Sun on the ground using binoculars and assorted holes in things like hats.

In the last minute or two before totality, due to arrive at 1026:38UT (12:26:38 local), the air of excitement and anticipation grew as the Sun diminished to an ever thinner crescent and the sky began to darken seriously. In the dying seconds, people, myself included, struggled to see Bailey's Beads. These are the last remnants of the Sun's bright surface (the Photosphere) broken up into individual spots of light as it shines between craters, valleys and mountains on the Moon's surface. As I had anticipated, and warned people, they were almost impossible to observe with the Sun high in the sky, because while the Sun had all but disappeared when seen through viewers, it was still too bright to look at directly.

Then, suddenly, darkness was upon us as the edge of the Moon's shadow swept over us, and totality had started. I got no impression of the shadow sweeping across the desert - it was just too flat. That is something I have yet to experience and will have to wait for another eclipse!

Eclipse viewers and filters off! It was time to look at the Sun directly as the corona flashed into view. For many in our party this was their first total eclipse, and for all of us, the moment of truth after the months and years of planning and expectation had finally arrived. And what a beautiful sight it was - the black disk of the Moon surrounded by the silvery white corona, fairly evenly distributed around the Sun, and with the Sun's magnetic poles picked out by fine hairs or filaments, very much as you would see with iron filings laid on a piece of paper over a bar magnet. There was also the impression of arms extending away into space giving the corona curious, almost rectangular appearance.

Looking around, it had become almost night, with the sky a deep blue-grey apart from an orange-pink sunset that extended around the entire horizon. This was sunlight spilling in from beyond the Moon's shadow, the edge of which was some 90km away at mid eclipse. People in fact complained later that it had become so dark they could not read displays on their cameras, and Paul, who had the terrible misfortune of running out of film at the precious moment, could barely see to change over to a new one.

To the west Venus shone brilliantly, just like it had done before dawn. Some people later said that they had thought it was an aircraft or a balloon, not believing it could possibly be so bright. Between Venus and the Sun lay Mercury, but harder to see. I did not definitely see any other stars, though must confess that I did not spend long looking.

With all the excitement the 4 minutes 3 seconds of totality were in danger of passing without my taking any photographs, but I also wanted to see the eclipse through my other telescope, never having seen a totality close up before. I grabbed a selection of shots at different exposures to try to capture different aspects of the corona, then went for a look through my other telescope, where there was plenty of activity under the control of Rebecca, who I had put in charge of removing and replacing the filter at the appropriate moments.

The view through the scope was incredible, with the hair-like streamers of the corona picked out in much more detail than with the naked eye, and, it has to be said, better than any photograph. Totality was nearly over by now so there was a noticeable brightening on the side of the Moon where the Sun would reappear, and the pink outer atmosphere of the sun (the Chromosphere) was emerging adjacent to the edge of the Moon. Along it, in a few places, fiery Prominences stood proud of the surface like pink flames.

I dashed back to my other scope to catch the dying seconds of totality (due to end at 1030:42UT (12:30.42 local)) and catch the spectacular Diamond Ring as the first shaft of sunlight bursts back onto the scene. After getting used to the darkness, it was certainly a stunner when the Sun reappeared, but I wasn't sure whether my camera's image chip would survive the punishment of being subjected to full sunlight though the telescope in what was a very "fast" optical system - only f/1.5 at the current setting. I had the rest of the Libya trip to think about, so I hastily replaced the filter after grabbing one shot of the Diamond Ring, but I hope you'll agree that the result was worth the risk.

Bailey's Beads were again elusive - better to wait for an eclipse with the Sun low in the sky for this - but instead we were rewarded with a fine display of Shadow Bands. Turning away from the Sun the desert surface was alive with subtle wavy light and dark bands, very much as the shadows of ripples appear on the bottom of a swimming pool. They were perhaps 6 to 9 inches (15 to 25cm) apart and moved steadily eastwards at around 1mph (0.5m/s). I called out for people to watch this elusive phonomenon and grabbed a couple of photos with my small camera but the results were disappointing and unconvincing. The contast was quite subtle and was is the movement that made them clear to the eye - a better target for video really. They are images of the thin cresent Sun created by turbulence in the atmosphere, but had disappeared by around 30 seconds after totality, by which time the sky and surroundings were brightening rapidly.

The beating of drums sounded out from the camp - the eclipse dance had worked and normality was returning as the shadow continued its rush north-eastwards across Libya and beyond. Of course, the wait for Fourth Contact, when the Moon finally clears the Sun (due at 1150UT (01:50 local) was something of an anti-climax after the build up to totality, and with lunch scheduled at 1:15pm - a priority given the shambles of last night - so after a group photo most of our party began to pack up and head back to camp by about 1pm. Only the die-hards, myself included, stayed to the end, but we need not have worried because by the time we arrived at the lunch tent at around 2pm, serving had still not started. Indeed, scuffles were breaking out by the door as those relegated to a second sitting, mostly Libyans it seemed, were naturally getting impatient at the delay.

The form for lunch was pretty much the same as for dinner last night, albeit it with less chaos. The camp management were on hand to wish us well and give an apology, which I think was largely accepted. It was clear from the outset that this was a major undertaking given that Libya does not have much of a tourist infrastructure and certainly no experience of catering for such large numbers of people, especially in the middle of nowhere like this.

Later, some of us found shade to take it easy, talk of the morning's events and discuss the prospects of future eclipses, while Roger headed off into the desert for a walk in the noon-day sun, perhaps never to be seen again. Michael, Phil and I went to explore the camp further, looking at souvenirs, and eyeing up enviously the more luxurious accomodation provided in the some of the other sections of the camp. We came across a French astronomer with his 20-inch telescope on the back of a pick-up truck, taking a break from surveying sites in Libya for an observatory (though the desert here would not be one of them!), and found a well-appointed internet tent, to which I returned later in the evening to upload pictures and a brief update to this journal.

Many other people left after lunch and there were convoys of vehicles leaving camp along the dusty road. It was to our advantage though, as come evening we had a wide selection of tents to choose from so most of us moved into more spacious accommodation. After dinner, about eight of us went out of the camp to try to escape the lights and have an observing session. It was a welcome chance for the Australians to see the northern sky, for me to see a sky further south than usual, and for those less familiar to have a quick tour of the sky and look through my Helios telescope and Dean's Celestron at variety of objects. Some targets were Jupiter and Saturn, some star clusters including the Beehive, Pleiades and Omega Centauri, some galaxies and the broken comet 73P / Schwassmann-Wachmann. For the latter the eye of faith was definitely required as it was still very faint at 9th magnitude, but may put on a good display as the 3 fragments pass very close to the Earth towards the end of May.

There were still too many lights to catch the Zodiacal Light, and we were also disturbed by people in vehicles, headlights blazing, coming to see what we were up to, which did nothing to help our night vision. Also, we would have to wait until the early hours of the morning to catch the Milky Way, but there will be other opportunities for that. Nevertheless we had a good evening, a fitting end to a great day!
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