Eclipse 98

1998 Feb 26

An eclipse cruise combines the fun of seeing an eclipse with the relaxing vacation of a cruise ship. Another advantage of this method

is the mobility of the ship to avoid clouds. On the date of the eclipse twenty two members of the Saguaro Astronomy Club were on board the S.S. Dawn Princess to witness this event near the island of Aruba, off the coast of Venezuala, South America. The captain carefully positioned the ship for clear sky and maximum eclipse duration. This involved stearing the ship through a "squall line", a band of dark rain clouds. As the drizzle started up, the spirits of a shipload of astronomers sank. But, as we cleared the clouds, the rain ceased and clear blue sky was on the other side of this band of clouds. There were no other problems with clouds for the rest of the eclipse.

The shadow of the Moon made its way across the Caribbean Sea and engulfed us in darkness. To the unaided eye there was a hole in the sky where a crescent Sun had been a few seconds earlier. The beautiful pearlescent corona was obvious and stood out about one solar radius on all sides, with a few streamers extending the corona even further out, as much as two solar radii. A prominence was easily seen on the top side of the dark disk.

The sky brightness was about the same as deep twilight so several planets were seen during this particular eclipse. Mercury was "above and to the right" of the Sun and Jupiter was straight below. Jupiter was a little brighter than Mercury, approximately one magnitude. Brilliant Venus stood well above the western horizon, I had to remind myself not to think of it as an airplane landing light, but it never moved during totality. The striking feature of this eclipse is the brilliant planets setting off the totally eclipsed Sun.

After soaking up the naked eye view for 30 seconds or so, a little voice in my head said "you have binoculars" and I suddenly remembered to use my 10X50 optical aid. The scene was perfectly framed in the binos, Mercury at 11 o'clock and Jupiter at 6. Maybe we should call this the "five minutes to six" eclipse? The binoculars also show a wealth of detail within the corona. The streamers have delicate detail that reminds me of the glint of sunlight through a spider web. The prominence is small, but prominent.

After using the binoculars for 30 seconds or so, that little voice said "you really ought to finish off that roll of film". So, I returned to the camera. My observing partner for over 20 years was next to me and Dave Fredericksen said he was getting good shots with the 800mm setup he was using. Knowing that Dave was getting good close-ups, I decided to zoom out to 150mm for the wider angle view and I shot a variety of exposures. I thought of saving a shot for the diamond ring, but as I tried to wind the film I had exhausted the roll.

So, I returned to view with the binoculars and 10 seconds after getting the 10x50s up to my eyes third contact began. Bailly's Beads were seen for 5 seconds or so as a string of tiny pearls along the bottom of the Moon. Then the diamond ring effect lit up the edge of the Sun-Moon conjunction. This brilliant flame of light grew and grew. Again, the little voice said "you're going to hurt yourself" and I deliberatly removed the binoculars from my eyes.

I used a small tape recorder to record the reactions of the people around me and of course, myself. I was surrounded by family and friends. Thinking that after a short time during the eclipse we would settle down and give a rational account of what was happening around us and the sights we observed. That rationale returned after a while, but during the eclipse the only rational utterances are "Wow, will you look at THAT!".

I have been an active observer of the skies for over 20 years and there is no spectacle in Nature that I have ever seen which is anything like a total solar eclipse. The eerie lighting effects, planets easily seen at 2 in the afternoon and the lovely transluscent corona fanning out from the black disk of the eclipsed Sun are unique and magnificent.

As always, the public is quite un-initiated when it comes to what to expect. On Friday, after the eclipse, David and I are in the elevator of the Dawn Princess with a woman who looks are David's eclipse T-shirt and inquires if we are astronomers. We answer yes and she says "it was lovely, does every cruise get an eclipse?"

Steve Coe 1998 Mar 2