Eclipse Odyssey

I have now ventured to the path of a solar eclipse 3 times. The first two were less than completely successful, the third was, as they say, a charm.

The first try was May 30, 1984 in Virginia. The eclipse was actually annular but was VERY nearly total. It rained.

Next was Hawaii July 11, 1991. After seeing the sky brighten to a solid cloud deck the skies opened and the partial phases were visible until just before totality, then the sun went into a cloud. It came out just after totality ended. My kids stayed at the condo with the baby-sitter, they saw it.

I decided to go mobile for the next try. After procrastinating for months I settled on the ASP cruise on the Raddison Diamond. The ship has a twin hull, kind of like a huge catamaran and is claimed to be the most stable cruise ship on the water despite only a 350 passenger capacity. The guest lecturers were highlighted, at least for me, by Frank Drake.

The plane flight out was really long. We left San Francisco at 7:00 a.m. Monday Feb 23. After stops in Miami and San Juan we arrived in Aruba at just after 11:00 p.m. local time. Walking on the tarmac I saw Canopus for the first time. Then we had to clear Customs, get on a bus to the ship and check in. At about 1:00 a.m. I was on the top deck cursing the string of lights that stretched from bow to stern. No observing that night.

There was a star party every evening thereafter. They officially started at about 11:00 and were on the top deck in the bow. I started earlier most nights. The sky ranged from mostly cloudy to mostly clear, dark enough to easily see the winter milky way. The problems were wind and horizon haze. Being at sea level is not good for the horizon. Most of the time there was a light (running light?) on in the bow so it never got real dark. The exception was during a really short leg of the trip, Bonaire to Curacao. The captain just let the boat drift. During this time the bow was aimed due south so we could see the sights and the light was off. Mighty thoughtful.

The Milky Way was great. Down through Puppis, Vela and Carina the bino views were wonderful and scanning the area with the ShortTube was wonderful. I didn't try to track down each star cloud and cluster. I just soaked it in and smiled.

There were a few things I did want to see:

Omega Centauri, I have seen it before but only as it brushed the horizon.

The Southern Cross

Alpha Centauri, No good reason. I just wanted to see the star I had heard so much about

Large Magellanic Cloud.

Well, I got three of the four. Omega was great. Round, slightly condensed and easily resolvable. Crux was real low so I never could see the Coal Sack except by careful binocular tracing when the horizon muck cleared somewhat, for brief moments. I did see Alpha Centauri, just naked eye.

Thanks to Bill Arnett and his Pronto I also saw CenA and Hale-Bopp. The search for Hale-Bopp was heroic. The search extended over more than one evening, the comet was low in an unfamiliar sky with conditions that included a stiff breeze and severe horizon haze. Bill found it, both of our families took a look. Then we ate dinner.

The highlight if the cruise was the eclipse. Unlike other ship stories I have read there was no worry about deck space. I had a bit of a problem snagging a table for my Questar but I got one. We started the day at 9:00 a.m. in a wonderful lecture about the galaxy as seen by the HST. This was done to prevent excess sun exposure. Lunch was early and the excitement was building. At about 12:30 Frank Drake got on the P.A. and announced time till first contact. The sky was about 1/3 clouds but no problem. I set up the Questar, alt-az, with solar filter, a video camera and my son's Orion ShortTube 80. We also put filters on my 10x70 binos and a handheld camera.

The early partial phases had a slow but relentless excitement. As the shadows got stranger and light dimmer everyone quieted down, sat back and looked. A few short minutes before totality the ship turned to avoid a big cloud that would surely have swallowed most of totality. This caused a ripple of readjustment on deck. The sun went into a small cloud but we could all see that it was moving fast. A big blue hole was right behind.

The P.A. gave a countdown and announced shadow band visibility. People exclaimed as Venus popped into view and I gazed into the west to try to spot the shadow coming in. No luck. Suddenly the light level dropped, totality had arrived. I looked up and was dumbstruck. The corona was gorgeous. The complexity is what got me. The inner corona was quite bright but it faded out slowly and the thin wisps merged with the background sky for a strange elusive border. The texture, color and shape are unlike anything else. Mercury and Jupiter blazed on either side. Combine that with a sky of a color I cannot begin to describe. The sky is darkest around the sun and lightest on the horizon. In the center, where the sun used to be, there is this black circle. The view was incredible. I stared. I have no idea for how long. My older son handed me the camera to take some shots, in no time I finished the roll. Then I went to the ShortTube and attached a camera. This is the setup that took the pictures I posted. Suddenly I realized I had not looked through the Questar. My 7 year old seemed glued to the eyepiece. After a gentle (I think) extraction I was treated to a magnificent sight. The corona was even more beautiful. There was also a prominence that looked like a piece of glowing red glass. I have never seen a picture that comes close. The P.A. announced third contact approaching and I managed to look up as the limb brightened. The diamond exploded into view, extinguishing Mercury and Jupiter and hung there for what seemed to be forever. It felt like totality was shorter than that trailing diamond ring. The sun grew to a crescent. It was over. After a moment the silence was broken and cheers and applause broke out. Fourth contact was an hour away but it was clearly over.

The next day we watched the sunset, hoping in vain for a green flash. A elegant sliver of new moon shone in the sky, accompanied by Mars. I thanked the moon for the show it gave us the previous day.

What a show.