Monday, November 3, 2014

A Noteworthy Corona-versary!

It was 20 years ago today―on November 3, 1994―that the Earth, moon and sun aligned themselves in such a way that the moon's conical shadow fell upon the surface of our planet.  Hundreds of "eclipse chasers" traveled thousands of miles to get a glimpse of one of nature's greatest celestial shows:  a total eclipse of the sun.  I was one of them;  on my first astronomical enrichment tour with MWT Associates, I helped lead a group of ten San Diego sky watchers, along with three dozen others from around the U.S., to the Gran Chaco of Paraguay to experience the drama of mid-day darkness.
After a week of enjoying the sights, sounds, aromas and flavors of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and after discussing every detail of eclipse mechanics, weather and photography, we were ready for the main event.  It was November 2, and we had settled in for the evening at a small hotel in Filadelfia, a tiny town southwest of AsunciĆ³n.  A wonderfully hearty early-evening dinner was followed by a few hours of Southern Hemisphere stargazing.  But it wasn't long before everyone had retired for the night, all in eager anticipation of what the morning would hold in store.
Our wakeup call on E-Day at 4:30 a.m. came in the form of a hotel employee banging on doors and yelling "Get up!" in Guarani, the primary native language of Paraguay.  "No need to shout," I thought.  Adrenaline had kept me awake most of the night anyway.  Racing to get dressed, I kept muttering to myself "I hope it's clear... I hope it's clear..."  After all, only one cloud strategically placed over the sun would end the show before it began.
As I opened the door and looked up into the blackness, my anxiety proved unfounded.  The sky was perfectly clear, and the Southern Cross shone exquisitely above the southeastern horizon.  "Yes!" I exclaimed, "It couldn't be better!"  Now the adrenaline was really pumping.
After a spirited breakfast, we piled into the bus for the trip south toward the eclipse centerline.  Despite getting very little sleep the night before, everyone was abuzz with discussion.  "Would exposures for the 'diamond ring' capture prominences as well?  How many stars would we see during totality?  How close to the centerline can we actually drive?"
By now, the sky to the east was beginning to show first light―right on time.  Despite having been through the chase before, I couldn't help rejoicing silently that the cosmos was behaving just as it should.  What a show we were going to have!


Within the hour, we arrived at the pre-planned observation site―a remote location of scrubby brush and tropical trees.  After hauling our gear 50 yards across the dirt road and over a 3-foot-high fence, we began setting up camp.  My equipment consisted of a platform for an 80mm-diameter, f/6 University Optics refractor telescope and three 35mm cameras, a German equatorial-mounted tripod connected to a 12-volt battery, and a short-wave radio and antenna for picking up accurate time signals from WWV.
At 8:27, it's show time and for us that means its payoff time.  Shouts of "first contact!" could be heard as the moon's curved silhouette first darkened the western limb of the sun.  Camera shutters clicked and eyes turned toward the sky.  The drama was on!
As the moon drifted eastward in front of our star, excited chatter came from everywhere.  Some in our group simply lay on the ground enjoying the sights;  others were diligently operating complex batteries of optical tools, hoping to record every second of the action.  I, of course, was one of the latter.
By 9:30, the sunlight had dimmed significantly and only a delicate crescent star remained. Shadows on the ground had become noticeably sharper, and sunlight streaming through the leaves of trees projected myriad tiny eclipses onto the ground below.  The mid-morning dusk brought to the sizzling Gran Chaco some much-welcomed cool air.  Flowers began to close in the waning light;  birds returned to roost;  nocturnal animals became more active.

Now, with only seconds until totality, the moon's dark shadow descended ominously from the western sky, engulfing the Paraguayan landscape in a still and eerie darkness. Shutters clicked madly at the rapidly changing scene, and heartbeats began to race. Soon, the last burst of sunlight shone through the rugged valleys along the moon's edge: the "diamond ring." And then... totality!
The place where the mighty sun once shone was a void, around which the sun's gossamer corona streamed outward across the sapphire sky.  Some cheered its arrival;  some wept at its splendor.  And some gazed in silent awe at the most glorious spectacle nature has to offer.  What a magnificent and exhilarating moment―one that some had waited an entire lifetime to experience.



In the darkened sky, the glistening planets Venus and Jupiter shone like jewels barely a dozen degrees from the pearly-white corona, and glowing near the horizon were the wonderfully warm colors of a 360-degree sunset.  If ever an alien landscape existed on Earth, this was it.  Its beauty held even the most veteran of eclipse chasers hostage, and we all became swept up by the haunting celestial theater.
Three and a quarter minutes passed, yet it seemed like only seconds, until the sun's familiar rays burst into view again. "No!  It can't be over yet!  It just began!" But Mother Nature had her own plans, and there was nothing we could do about them. All we could do was excitedly relive the past three minutes, and begin to plan where we would be for the next total solar eclipse nearly a full year, and an entire world, away.
Three years of calculating, planning and rehearsing were now complete.  The 1994 Gran Chaco total solar eclipse was history, etched forever in the minds of those who watched.  For a few magical moments, we had become one with the Cosmos―in perfect syzygy with the three most important bodies in our solar system. We had been touched by the power of our universe in a way impossible to describe, and felt emotions impossible to communicate.

For, you see, there are two types of people in this world:  those who have experienced totality, and those who have not.  And those of us who have will never, ever, be the same again.  


Join me for future eclipses, northern lights and other exciting celestial phenomena... check out our upcoming astronomical tours, and have the time of your life!