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Blackout in the South Pacific

UMass Lowell Staffer Observes July 11 Total Solar Eclipse

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Edwin Aguirre and his wife, Imelda Joson, photographed the total solar eclipse on July 11 from Tatakoto Atoll in French Polynesia.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A total eclipse of the sun is one of nature’s most spectacular and awe-inspiring sights. For sheer beauty and magnificence, perhaps no celestial phenomenon can compare with it. 

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly in front of sun, completely blocking it from view. Anyone standing within the eclipse’s narrow track gets immersed in the dark shadow cast by the moon a quarter of a million miles away. Provided the weather is clear, observers would be able to see the sun’s ghostly outer atmosphere, called the corona, during the brief moments of totality. They would also see the brightest stars and planets come out as day abruptly turns to night.

On July 11, such an eclipse took place over the South Pacific. For the hundreds of lucky observers who ventured to French Polynesia and Easter Island, they saw the sun disappear for up to 4.5 minutes.

Among them was Edwin Aguirre, the science and technology writer in UMass Lowell’s Public Affairs Office. He and his wife, Imelda Joson, led a group of nearly 40 eclipse enthusiasts to Tatakoto, a tiny isolated atoll in French Polynesia’s eastern Tuamotu Archipelago. Their tour members came from the United States, Canada, England, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan and Hong Kong.  

Aguirre and Joson are both veteran eclipse chasers, and this was their ninth successful solar eclipse expedition. (The only exception was in July last year when they got rained out near Jiaxing, China.) Their journeys have taken them to such exotic and faraway destinations as Baja California, Turkey, Zambia and Egypt.

“We let Mother Nature plan our vacation,” says Aguirre. “We go where the moon’s shadow takes us.”

A Mesmerizing Visual Drama

There was some initial concern about the weather conditions on Tatakoto the day of the eclipse. It was overcast the night before, and there were many scattered cumulus clouds that morning. Fortunately, the clouds began to dissipate as the eclipse progressed. Totality was scheduled to begin at 8:45 a.m. local time, with the sun 35° above the northeastern horizon.

As the moon’s 150-mile-wide shadow swept over the site at nearly 2,000 miles per hour, a prolonged, slow-motion sunburst, called the diamond ring, marked the last vestige of the sun. And then the corona suddenly burst into view. People cheered, whooped and cried; many were furiously shooting the eclipse with their cameras and camcorders.

The corona was surprisingly full of structure even though the sun was at its minimum activity, displaying long streamers that extended asymmetrically in opposite directions and tapered off into the deep, velvety blue sky. Hairlike brushes delicately traced magnetic-field lines above the sun’s polar regions.

Numerous prominences — those brilliant red flame-like eruptions projecting from the edge of the sun’s disk — were visible to the naked eye like a necklace of rubies.

Adding to the mesmerizing visual drama was the planet Jupiter gleaming through a break in the clouds a short distance from the darkened sun. And on the ground, the eclipse’s 360° sunset bathed the entire horizon in a vivid, yellow-orange glow.

Four and a half minutes after totality started, the sun’s reappearance on the opposite side of the moon was heralded by another spectacular diamond ring. The total eclipse was over, and daylight returned very swiftly as if a giant celestial dimmer switch had been turned off. (Watch the YouTube video of the eclipse that Aguirre and Joson recorded). 

After the observers packed their equipment, the mayor of Tatakoto hosted a feast to celebrate the group’s success. Later that afternoon, Aguirre and Joson went to the island’s primary school and presented the mayor, the school’s headmaster and the children with a telescope they had brought with them.

“Before the trip, we were able to convince Celestron, a well-known telescope manufacturer in California, to donate a 3.5-inch refracting telescope for the school,” says Aguirre.

The telescope came with an aluminum tripod, a finderscope, two eyepieces, a star diagonal and manuals. 

“We showed them how to use the telescope,” he says. “The kids then took turns taking their very first look through a telescope. They were very excited and happy.”

“The island is endowed with one of the clearest, darkest and most pristine skies we’ve ever seen, and the telescope would be a superb tool for the children to explore the beauty of the night sky,” says Joson.

The day after the eclipse, the group members boarded their chartered flight for some sightseeing and relaxation in Tahiti and Moorea before finally heading home. They later learned that observers in the Cook Islands, on cruise ships, on Easter Island and in southern Argentina were also successful. 

“A total solar eclipse is an incredible, almost surreal, experience that everyone should witness at least once in their lifetime,” says Aguirre.

If you haven’t seen one, you’ll soon get a chance: on Nov. 14, 2012, the sun will again disappear from view, and the best place to see it on land will be the northern tip of Queensland, Australia. 

For more photos of the eclipse in Tatakoto, visit UMass Lowell’s Photo Gallery.