Total Solar Eclipse

1998 Feb 26

Joan and I arrived at the airport in Aruba just before midnight on Monday 1998 Feb 23. Think for a moment about what a marvelous achievement that simple fact represents. We were there so see a total eclipse of the Sun, an event that modern celestial mechanics can predict centuries in advance with an almost unbelievable precision. Ancient people had a variety of reactions to total eclipses, mostly fearful and justifiably so. I'm sure a large number of virgins died on the alter in an attempt to ward off the evil consuming the Sun. We, on the other hand, paid thousands of dollars and journeyed a substantial fraction of the Earth's circumference just to see that no longer fearful event. And that we were able to so do for not much more than a week's salary is a testiment to power of modern technology. Even as recently as my father's generation, seeing a total eclipse was not something you could reasonably hope for. Only the rich or those backed by powerful institutions could make an eclipse journey. Ordinary people had to rely on chance (and the chances aren't good; a typical spot on the Earth's surface sees a total eclipse only once in three centuries).

It was a long day. We got up at 5am to catch a 7am flight from SFO to Miami and then on to San Juan Puerto Rico and then to Aruba. My brain does not function correctly at 5am. Fortunately, we knew this ahead of time and drove to a hotel near the airport the evening before. Thus all we had to do was get to the airport parking lot, ride the shuttle bus and check in at the airport. The rest was just waiting while all that modern tech did its thing. Unfortunately, it was a long wait; my body does not find airplane seats very user friendly. Stepping onto the tarmac at Aruba (no jetways there :-) was a great relief. Being a dedicated amateur astronomer my first reaction was to look up in the sky. I must have looked pretty silly spinning around with my head tilted up and bags in both hands. But I did spot Canopus (Alpha Carinae). Our astronomical vacation had begun.

The biggest uncertainty in airplane travel, of course, is the actual destination of your checked baggage. One can manage without extra clothes and I had my Pronto in hand but its tripod and my binocular were in my checked bag. Fortunately, our bags arrived as planned and after a minimalist version of Customs inspection and a short ride to the dock we boarded the ship that was to take us to the centerline, the Radisson Diamond.

Things really started to improve at this point. No more plebeian airports; we were now firmly into First Class. Not only were the reception folks cheerful and friendly and the whole operation efficient and free of snafus but their first act after checking our names off their list was to hand us each a glass of surprisingly good Champagne. We were then personally escorted to our stateroom. Which was already stocked with a variety of liquor, fresh fruit, and chocolate. Even my jet-lagged and generally cynical brain was impressed. The smart thing would have been to immediately go to bed but it was only a mid-evening by California time so we unpacked and explored the ship for a while. The stateroom was only 22 square meters (240 square feet, including the bathroom), tiny by comparison to even the most basic hotel room, but it didn't seem that way at all. Tasteful decoration in light polished wood, lots of storage space and a full width glass door opening onto a little balcony made it wonderfully light and airy and comfortable. Regular architects have a lot to learn from their naval counterparts :-)

The general routine was that the ship would steam during the night and dock at the next port early in the morning. We then had the whole day to mess around. Then back on the ship for dinner and on to the next port. Eclipse day (Thursday) was entirely at sea. Then a final day in Ponce, Puerto Rico where we stayed on board most of the day just relaxing. Our last stop was San Juan and disembarkation early Saturday morning.

Not that I have a lot of experience with cruise ships but life aboard Radisson Diamond certainly seemed to me to be first class all the way. All the food is "free" (ie included in the overall price) and always plentifully available. Anything from any of the dining rooms is available via room service at no extra charge. You pay only for drinks (at highly inflated rates, but at this point who's counting?). Ordinarily "all you can eat" fare is not worth eating. Not this time! We have been to a lot of nice restaurants but few that match the Radisson Diamond. There are actually two dining rooms aboard. One is the fancy "Grand Dining Room" which is really "just" a floating top of the line Continental restaurant. Most passengers eat there most of the time. The only aspect of it that I didn't like is that it is rather large (seating for at least 150 in several large rooms) but it was not at all crowded and the huge two story glass windows at the stern of the ship are spectacular. Everything we ordered was excellent, the service was fine, the presentation pleasant. And when you're done there's no fussing with the bill :-) The other choice is an Italian bistro with a fixed menu; you get a little of everything, no choices. If that sounds like trouble, note that I am a pretty fussy eater and of the 10 items on the menu I thought 9 were superb and the other one just fine. Breakfast and lunch were equally fine, served either in the Grand Dining room or on deck. And for if you really wanted to escape the gourmet fare for a while they even had good hamburgers.

The only downside of all this, for me, was that there is a fairly draconian dress code for dinner. Each night was specifically labeled as "casual", "informal" or "Formal". I am a dedicated low life in this respect, I guess. I would have expected those to mean "shoes required", "shirts required" and "long pants required". But in fact it went from "we'll grudgingly let you in without a tie" to "tuxedos only". We ate at the Italian bistro on "formal" night :-)

Tuesday saw us in Bonaire, the diver's paradise. We are not scuba trained so we just did a little snorkeling. Bonaire's reef is a little deep for snorkeling (slopes off rapidly to about 4 meters then gradually down much deeper) but it was very enjoyable nevertheless. We swam under the dock right next to the ship. Very cool. Like being in an eerie underwater cathedral with the light streaming in from the sides and columns that reached down almost to infinity (the bottom about 10 meters down was juse barely visible). Everything was completely encrusted with reef animals (including corals, urchins, anemones, and some impressive tube sponges we hadn't seen in previous snorkeling adventures); far more impressive than the usual cathedral decor :-) We also unpacked our well-traveled "two-man" inflatable boat and rowed it underneath the dock and the Radisson Diamond.

Wednesday we were in Curacao. In the morning we took a little boat trip to a dive site a few miles south of the port. Nice snorkeling around a sunken tug boat. After lunch, Joan went ashore to do some exploring; I sat thru the astronomy lectures. She got lost and found by the police; I nearly fell asleep. Maybe our brains were still not yet at 100%. Despite covering ourselves with sunblock, we both managed to get mildly sunburned. Not enough to cause any real pain and besides what would a tropical vacation be without that warm reminder?

I asked the capitan at one point whether those officers normally required to be below in the engine room would be allowed to leave their posts for a few minutes during totality. He said (parapharasing), "No. They chose their careers and they have to accept the consequences. But, IMHO, rules are meant to be broken in cases like this. I wonder if it was really a case of "don't ask, don't tell"?

Each night there was a "star party" on the official schedule. But I must say it would have been a sorry excuse for a star party had not fellow SJAA member Leonard Tramiel and I been there. The tour director had arranged for one of the professional astronomers to lead the event. He interpreted this to mean pointing out a few constellations with a flashlight. Unfortunately, he didn't know his constellations very well (eg: he kept telling us that the stars of Corvus were part of Virgo). Fortunately, Leonard (and his precocious son Alex) was there with his ShortTube 80 and I had my Pronto. I think we managed to put on a decent show. But bigger scopes would have been nice. The wind would have put big Newtonians out of business but an SCT or a big refractor would have been useable.

I had some new equipment that I was using essentially for the first time. My rickety old tripod for the Pronto was replaced by a new Bogen 3221 with 3275 gearhead. As expected, it turned out to be immensely superior. No more shakes. Fast, easy motion in both axes. And the nifty quick release plate makes setup much easier and faster. IMHO, this is a pretty much ideal altaz setup for a small scope.

I wasn't able to buy solar filters for my binos nor for my Pronto (they tend to be out of stock just before eclipses, I guess :-) So I got some coated mylar and made my own with cardboard and tape. They aren't pretty but they worked. For the Pronto, I also rigged up a way to use a special glass filter that my Dad loaned me. It worked even better. Despite having to stop the scope down to about 55mm, the image was much brighter and sharper than with the mylar. I never actually used the Pronto's mylar filter, though it was nice to know I had a backup just in case.

My final bit of new hardware was a Sony Digital Mavica camera. My early experiences with it are detail elsewhere. For the eclipse trip I took along 17 floppy disks figuring that would be way more than enough for a 5 day trip without having to copy them to a hard disk. So I left my Powerbook at home. As it turned out, I filled up 15 of the disks. When "film" is free, one tends to take a lot of marginal shots. And why not? Deleting the junk is pretty quick; missing a potentially valuable shot is forever. (On the other hand, as I found out when doing this web site, processing all the images can take a lot of time.) It worked just fine as a snapshot camera. But I sort of wish I hadn't had it during totality. It distracted me too much from the visual spectacle. Next time, no cameras.

The skies were really black. Except for the ships lights (which the capitan turned off as much as possible in our area at the bow) there was no light at all. There were some scattered clouds to make constellation hunting more interesting. They were literally invisible; we would look up and simply not see some stars that we knew were there (at one point we had Orion without his belt). With almost all my experience at 35N latitude (+/- a few degrees) the sky looked very strange. And, of course, the ship was pointed in different directions on each night. The result was a bit of confusion each night until I got oriented. But it sure was nice to have Orion nearly at the zenith. M42 looked almost as nice at 70x in my little Pronto than it usually does at Fremont Peak with my 12" LX200. OK, it wasn't as big and detailed but the really black background makes it so much prettier!

My first view of the Eta Carinae Nebula was from Australia in '95. But I was very new to observational astronomy at that time. I saw only the inner core of it. This time I saw it all. It is HUGE, at least twice the size of M42, though not as bright. What a marvelous sight it must be with a big scope!

In addition to the usual northern bright stuff we had a nice long look at Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) well up in a dark sky. Even in the little Pronto Omega Cen was gorgeous: huge and nearly resolved. What a sight it must be in a big scope. I've seen it from San Diego with my LX200 but it is so far down in the muck that it doesn't count. One of these days I'm going to have to take a big scope to the southern hemisphere! I also hunted down Centaurus A (NGC 5128); though I had prepared a chart I forget to bring it so I had to find it by memory and sweeping. It wasn't too hard with the really dark sky. I didn't see the prominent dark lane (after all I was using only 70mm) but I think Jay or Akkana might have.

One would think that the deck of a ship at sea would be a lousy place for astronomy as it would be difficult to keep the scope pointed as the ship rolled and pitched inthe seas. We had been told that the Radisson Diamond was a particularly stable ship. And so it turned out. At 70x and a true field of view of just about 1 degree (7mm Nagler) objects would stay in the field as the ship rolled. The motion was quite acceptable for astronomy at that magnification (higher powers would have been difficult) even though it was enough to (slightly) upset one's sense of balance. I would have thought the opposite. I wonder if other ships are significantly worse.

Everyone wanted to see Crux. But only those whose desire outweighed their need for sleep actually saw it as it didn't rise out of the cloudy horizon until well after midnight. Naturally, nearly everone (including our professional "leader") was confused by the "False Cross" that is somewhat larger and farther west and was easily seen early in the evening. Joan became our unofficial Crux expert. She was the first to spot it each night and had fun showing it off to everyone.

One of the passengers on our cruise was the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, "inventor" of the Dyson Sphere. Though he didn't speak at any of the lectures he did show up at a couple of the star parties on the bow. Leonard and I were in heaven. (Though I was kicking myself that I didn't bring one of his books to have autographed; I just bought "Imagined Worlds" the week before we left.) He got a little tour of the Centarus/Crux region with my Pronto. What fun, me getting to show off to such an eminent personage! He said that he hadn't done much amateur astronomy in his career but he seemed to know what he was doing nevertheless. He had no trouble seeing the dark lanes in Eta Carina (NGC 3372). At one point, he pointed to the western corner of the False Cross and asked about the obvious cluster there. I had no idea, of course, but I pointed the scope at it anyway. It turned out to be a magnificent sparse open cluster nearly as bright as M45. I later determined that it is IC 2391 (mag 2.5). It will forever be known to me as "Freeman Dyson's Cluster".

On the day after the eclipse I was messing around with sunset photos when Leonard remembered that the new Moon should be visible. And so it was, a beautiful crescent with a bright star just a degree away. (We had a little debate about which one the star was but since it clearly couldn't be Antares we settled on real Ares; a quick peek with the Pronto removed all doubt.) The Moon was only 30 hours old, nothing close to a record but very nice; the terminator was actually east of Mare Crisium. Except for an eclipse no one will ever see a Moon that new after having already seen it the day before!

Later that evening, I tried for Comet Hale-Bopp. I had had no success the day before trying to sweep it up knowing only the general area. But as this was one of the secondary goals of the trip I decided to make a more concerted effort since this would be my last chance (I doubt I will be alive 2400 years from now when it next returns to the inner solar system). I first saw Comet Hale-Bopp in 1995 from Melbourne, Australia nearly 30 months ago. It's not often that one gets a chance to see the same comet for 30 months!

So out came the charts I had cleverly prepared with Starry Night before we left home. Hale-Bopp was well above the horizon in clear, dark sky but it was in Dorado, an unfamiliar constellation whose brightest star is only mag 3.3. It tooks me a few minutes star hopping from Canopus just to get started. The comet was only about mag 9 so it wasn't going to just pop out in a 70mm scope even with the good dark sky. So I carefully star hopped my way from dim little triangle to obscure quadrilateral until the "lambda shape" marking the final field came into view. Studying my chart of the comet's path thru that field from day to day showed just where to look et voila! there it was, just barely visible with averted vision. Not much to see but as Mark would say, the hunt is as much fun as the kill. For me, it was nice to confirm that even us LX200-cripples can make do when we have to :-)

On eclipse day, we awoke to partly cloudy skies. But I was never in doubt that we would see the eclipse. The events leading up to the time of totality should have tested my conficence but they didn't. Did that take away some of the excitement? Maybe, but I'll take that over the anxiety and disappointment we all felt in Hawaii in 1991.

So I calmly went about observing the partial phases. There were two nice sunspot groups to liven up the first hour. On any other day they would have been very interesting targets in themselves. As the Moon's limb apprached them its motion was clearly evident in real time thru the eyepiece. It was fun to see first one then the other group disappear in to the inky blackness of the Moon.

A few minutes before totality, crescent-shaped shadows were everywhere. We played around with making them by crossing and making little pinholes with our fingers. Maybe one minute before totality shadow bands were visible. I saw them on one of the ship's flat white bulkheads. They were very subtle and hard to see but there was no doubt that they were real. But unlike our otherwise disappointing experience in Hawaii, we did not see the Moon's shadow approach from the west. I remember that very clearly from 1991. But our location on a hillside with a much more distant horizon made that easier (as did the fact that there wasn't anything else do see :-(

And then at exactly the predicted time and place the shadow of the Moon came upon us. As the corona shone in it full glory above us my dream of nearly forty years was realized. We saw it! We saw it! We saw it! The most sophisticated observation I heard during totality was: "Look at that!"; most of us were reduced to monosyllables. All my plans about what to do during totality were forgotten. The sheer beauty of it was just overwhelming.

[ For the record, 2nd contact was at 13° 39' 15" North 67° 27' 30" West 1998 Feb 26 1816:23 UT. ]

Naturally, no first successful eclipse experience would be complete without a SNAFU or two. I had setup my scope just before 1st contact in a location well chosen for the duration of the event. But as the time of totality approached it the captian saw a big cloud coming our way that surely would have eaten our eclipse. So he turned the ship 30 or 40 degrees to port to get us into a big blue hole instead. This is exactly why I wanted to be on a ship! But, the turn changed the relationship between the Sun and my position with respect to the ship's superstructure. Though the turn was made 20 minutes before totality and I of course rotated my Pronto to compensate, I didn't notice that the Sun was very near one of the ship's communications towers. As Murphy would have it, the Sun slid behind the tower just seconds before totality. Just at the critical time the Sun disappeared from my eyepiece! I didn't quite panic, but I also don't really quite remember what happened. I remember some frantic scanning around with the tripod controls with no success. And I remember thinking, "well, I guess I'll just watch with the binos and unaided eye". I saw the 2nd contact diamond ring and the first moments of totality just looking up. Then I apparently realized what was wrong. After totality was over my tripod was in a different place, so I must have moved it. I do remember trying again to reaquire the Sun in the eyepiece after 2nd contact. Fortunately, it took only a few seconds. I must have removed the filter, too.

And I'll remember as long as I live that first glimpse of the corona at 12x thru the little Pronto. Of course, it was generally what I expected from pictures. But no image I've ever seen even comes close to the direct visual experience. The contrast is just too great for any of our ordinary media to reproduce. There was lots of structure visible in the corona from the solar limb out at least 2 solar diameters and maybe a little more. The corona as a whole took on a sort of "arrow" shape with one large prominent streamer on one side (the arrowhead) and two slightly smaller ones on the opposite side (the feathers). Many fine "brushes" were visible at both poles. It looked very much like a magnetic dipole pattern (which isn't as close to the truth as you might think). Whereas it takes several photographs at different exposure levels to capture all this detail, the eye can see it all at once. I just gawked.

And the colors! The corona was a very pale but brilliant blue, maybe a little like sunlight thru ice. There was one large deep red prominence near the top of the image and several smaller ones with a lighter pinkish hue. And, of course, the infinitely black Moon.

My first reaction was "Gee, it is awfully small." I had been looking thru the Pronto at 12x most of the partial phases, perhaps that affected my perceptions. Of course, in reality the corona was only about 2 degrees in the longest dimension. That is only about 1 percent of the visible hemisphere after all. Still, I expected it to look bigger.

One special feature of this eclipse was the presence of Mercury and Jupiter just a few degrees on either side of the Sun. Venus was obvious far to the west, too, but too far away to see at the same time as the Sun. Mars and Saturn were theoretically visible, too, but I didn't take any time to try to find them. (I also noticed while playing around with Starry Night before we left that my favorite globular cluster 47 Tucanae would also be visible during totality. But only a complete madman would waste precious seconds of totality searching for an object easily visible at other times.)

A total solar eclipse is an interesting lesson in humility for the modern man. We are so confident in our technology and our self-sufficiency. But when the Sun goes away in the middle of the day one is reminded in the most direct and obvious way how utterly dependent we are on it. Of course, we are all aware of this intellectually. But in the hour before totality the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees (F). I actually shivvered for a moment. Of course, it wasn't really cold (yet!) but my subconscious didn't like the situation one bit. As we watched the Moon slide in front of the Sun we were reminded that there are forces out there far, far beyond our puny power. My abstract intellectual knowledge was transformed into direct experience.

It is a sobering thought, too, that that apparently tiny prominence we saw at the Sun's limb was actually bigger than the Earth.

By 1820 UT it was all over. The call of "ten seconds to 3rd contact" felt like a death sentence. "No!" we cried, "not so soon." Fortunately, Nature has arranged that at that too soon moment of 3rd contact one of its beautiful events occurs -- another diamond ring to match the one at the onset of totality. But the second one much easier to observe since one's filters are off at the outset. I managed to watch the first second or two of it thru the Pronto. When it got too bright, I looked up at the Sun for another second or two before resorting to filters. The tiny but seemingly huge and overwhelmingly bright point of white was set in a perfect ring of deep but brilliant red. A star on a ring of fire. I've never seen a picture that cames anywhere close to the visual effect.

The funny thing is I don't really remember all the things I did during totality; that was the fastest 3:40 of my life. My favorite quip is: "no matter what the clock says totality always lasts 7 seconds".

The clouds that we had been dodging all afternoon finally won out just minutes after 3rd contact. It was actually very interesting to watch the thin crescent Sun thru the clouds which were often just the right density to permit easy viewing. Once again, we were glad for the ship's maneuverability and all the high-tech communications gear to guide it.

I'm addicted. The next eclipse is 1999 Aug 11 in Europe. I'll be there!

[ Just to put a final cap on a perfect week, we even had some nice views of the ground from the air on the way home. ]

Bill Arnett; last updated: 1998 Mar 13