12 August 2009

The longest total solar eclipse of the century

Witnessing a total solar eclipse is a privilege that not everyone gets the opportunity to experience. You will never forget the experience, as the moon with unbelievable precision glides in between the Sun and the Earth. Breathless, you follow the magical atmosphere as the shadow of the moon creeps over the landscape, which leaves it in a surreal twilight. The stars light up in the dark sky, the birds stop singing and the temperature falls noticeably”, explains Janaki Lund Jensen, who is the secretary for the research group, Stars and Galaxies at the Niels Bohr Institute.

Janaki Lund Jensen is hooked on solar eclipses, which she travels around the world to experience. Here is her account from her trip to China to experience the longest total solar eclipse of the century on July 22, 2009.

Janaki Lund Jensen watching a solar eclipse in China

Janaki Lund Jensen is in China to see the total solar eclipse
on July 22. A total solar eclipse can only be observed in a
circa 100 km wide belt that varies from time to time so one
has to travel after it and Janaki Lund Jensen has previously
been in Borneo, the Caribean, Bulgaria, Zimbabwe, Australia,
Egypt and China.

On July 14th I left for China on my 8th total solar eclipse trip. I traveled together with solar eclipse expert Fred Espenak from NASA and a group from an American travel agency. After seeing a lot of interesting sights in Beijing including the Forbidden City, the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Square), the Ming Dynasty Tombs which is a mausoleum for the 13 emperors and the Great Wall of China, we flew to Shanghai and drove straight to Suzhou where we saw Zhouzhuang Village, also called the Venice of the East. From there we drove to the city Hangzhou, where we sailed on Xihu Lake (Western Lake).

Ominous weather forecast

We had originally planned to see the total solar eclipse from the top of a hotel in the city Haiyan which is located on the coast near Shanghai. We were supposed to drive to Haiyan on the morning of Tuesday the 21st of July 21 to get ready for the total solar eclipse, but we could see that the weather conditions were looking very, very bad there so we needed to resort to plan B.

Illustration of alignment between Sun and Moon when a total solar eclipse occurs

A total solar eclipse occurs
when the Moon passes
between the Sun and the Earth
on its orbit. The Sun is 400
times larger than the Moon
and the reason that the Moon
can cast a shadow over the
Sun is that the Sun is 400
times farther away from the
Earth than the Moon.

Fred Espenak gave us the option of either going with our tour busses to the city Haiyan as planned or flying to Chongquin to see the total solar eclipse there. All 37 people on the trip were instantly in complete agreement that they wanted to fly to where Fred Espenak wanted to be. Within a few hours, with the invaluable assistance of some fantastic local Chinese tour operators, we bought 37 plane tickets for a flight of over 1200 km to the city Chongquin departing that same afternoon.

Sunshine in ’Foggy city’

However, here the total solar eclipse would not last the maximum 5 minutes and 50 seconds, but would instead last 4 minutes and 9 seconds. But it would be better to have the chance to see than not at all. And it would still be my longest total solar eclipse. One of our local guides told us just before we left the hotel in Hangzhou that the nickname of the city Chongquin is “Foggy city”. That made us a little bit anxious, but we hoped that it would not be true of the city the next morning.

When we arrived in Chongquin, a city with 32 million inhabitants, we were very confident that we would get to experience a total solar eclipse and that was a very nice feeling. When we got up the next morning the sun was shining into the hotel room on the ninth floor and it looked to be completely clear weather. It just relieved and removed the worries we had had up until then.

At 8.00 in the morning we were ready and an area in a parking lot in front of the hotel was cleared for our 37 people, the organizers and the hotel personnel. Standing outside of our area, which was marked by a red tape, were some locals who also wanted to see the event. We lent them solar eclipse glasses and explained a little bit about what they would hopefully get to experience.

Overwhelming natural phenomenon

Picture of the solar eclipse

The solar eclipse on July 22 seen from
Chongquin in China. The glowing ring, the
corona, is the extremely hot atmosphere
of the Sun, which reaches far out into
space. A total solar eclipse happens on
an average of once every year and a half,
but the phenomena can only be seen in
the small area of the Earth where the
shadow of the Moon falls.
Photo: Richard Bareford

At 8.08 the Moon took the first little bite of the Sun and the solar eclipse had begun. The solar eclipse glasses were put to good use the whole time to follow the Moon slowly eating the Sun. At 9.13 the first Diamond Ring (which is the last light, which comes from valleys on the surface of the moon) appeared and then the solar eclipse was total. It was utterly fantastic and I cried of happiness over being allowed to see this unbelievably beautiful natural phenomenon once again. Two days before I hadn’t thought it would be possible with the ominous weather forecast.

After 4 minutes and 9 seconds came one of the most beautiful sights you can imagine – the last Diamond Ring and with it the first light from the Sun. For the next 1 hour and 30 minutes the Moon glided calmly away from the Sun again. We were all happy and shouted with joy over having seen the total solar eclipse so well despite the very bad weather conditions in many of the places in China where the solar eclipse could be seen. We toasted each other and were completely wild with excitement.

Next stop: India

Almost before the excitement and the frenzy had subsided, Janaki Lund Jensen’s thoughts begin to turn towards the next solar eclipse trip. She already knows it will be to India, where on January 15, 2010 there will be a fantastic annular solar eclipse

”The unusual thing about it is that it will be one of the longest annular solar eclipses at over 10 minutes”, explains Janaki Lund Jensen, who up until now has experienced 8 total and 3 annular solar eclipses.