The total solar eclipse of July 22, 2009 is noteworthy in that it has the longest duration of totality of any eclipse during the 21st century. Indeed its 6m 39s maximum duration will not be exceeded until the year 2132.
As a member of Saros 136, it is one of a series of eclipses that all exhibit long durations, especially during the 20th and 21st centuries. Each eclipse of the sequence is separated by the Saros period 18 years 11 days and 8 hours. The last two members of Saros 136 occurred in 1973 and 1991 while the next is in 2027.
The path of the 2009 eclipse began in India and ran across Bhutan, South China, and the South Pacific Ocean ( map). The Spears Travel 2009 eclipse tour took us to China to visit some of the most popular sights in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou (itinerary).
After a successful 2008 eclipse trip to China, Gary Spears and I hoped to repeat our good fortune with our 2009 expedition.
Our group of 37 visited some of China's most renowned attractions during the week preceding the eclipse. The previously selected eclipse site was our hotel in Haiyan, a coastal city located about 100 km southwest of Shanghai. In the days preceding the eclipse, we enjoyed sunny skies much of the time. However, a daily check of the July 22 weather forecast grew more and more pessimistic. By the morning of July 21, all computer models for eclipse day predicted heavy overcast and thundershowers throughout the Shanghai-Hangzhou region.
The tour group was out sightseeing while Gary and I remained behind at the hotel to brainstorm a number of plans to transport our group to clear skies. Most locations offering better weather prospects were simply too far away to drive. With time running out I made the desperate suggestion to fly the group half way across China to Chongqing where the forecast was more promising. As unbelievable as it seems, our Chinese tour guides Xuebao Lin and Lydia Yang were able to find a flight from Hangzhou to Chongqing with seats for the entire group as well as a hotel and bus transportation while in Chongqing. They also reserved seats for us on a return flight to Shanghai on the evening of July 22. This new itinerary would only cost about $350 per person. Amazing!
At 11 am we briefed the group on the weather situation and our new plan. The case we made must have been compelling because it was quickly and unanimously decided to hop a plane to Chongqing rather than travel to our original destination in Haiyan.
For the next two hours the hotel lobby was transformed into an obstacle course of open luggage as we repacked for the one-day trip to Chongqing while leaving most baggage behind to be retrieved after the eclipse.
The 5pm flight from Hangzhou to Chongqing was delayed several hours as we nervously awaited our departure. After a three-hour flight, we retrieved our luggage, boarded the waiting bus and arrived at our new hotel by 11pm. With just 10 hours before totality, I surveyed the hotel parking lot for a suitable area to cordon off for an observing site. Tall buildings surrounded the parking lot but the view to the east was unobstructed. This was just what we needed since the eclipse would occur early the next morning in the eastern sky.
It was now midnight and I needed to catch a few hours sleep. In spite of pre-eclipse jitters, I dozed off. At 4am, my alarm watch propelled me into consciousness and the task of assembling my equipment.
From the urban location of our hotel, I could only spot 1st magnitude stars, but it was enough to know the sky was free from clouds.
My equipment included two equatorial tripods and electric drives supporting three telescopes. After a quick breakfast I transported all the equipment to the parking lot observing site.
During the night Xuebao and the hotel staff had covered artificial lighting in the parking lot with black plastic to prevent lights from potentially interfering with eclipse observations. There were chairs and a table of drinks. My wife Pat posted a sign listing the eclipse contact times I had calculated the night before using the GPS coordinates of the parking lot.
I was far from ready as I performed a crude polar alignment of my equatorial tripods using a compass and a bubble level angle finder to set the latitude. Working as quickly as possible, I set up my 90mm refractor in time to catch 1st contact at 8:08am. The sky was filled with high cirrus clouds that required a 3-stop compensation for exposures of the Sun's disk. I was using Fred Bruenjes' Eclipse Orchestrator program to control two of my Nikon DSLR cameras.
The hazy conditions meant that I had to modify all the exposures in the photography script before I could launch the Orchestrator program. This was difficult to do in bright sunlight because the PC screen was hard to see. I persevered while continuing to shoot partial eclipse sequences manually.
About halfway through the partial phases the new photo script was ready. I connected the control cables from a tiny Asus PC to two Nikon cameras, fired up Eclipse Orchestrator and was rewarded with the sound of the computer program firing the shutter of my Nikon D300.
I now had time to finish setting up two video cameras. Several more cameras remained in the case since no time was left. My attention was now directed to ensuring that my two still and two video cameras were operating optimally and that equatorial mounts were tracking the Sun.
About 15 minutes before 2nd contact (start of totality), I noted a 22-degree halo centered on the crescent Sun. The ice crystals present in the high altitude cirrus clouds produced the atmospheric effect and reminded us that clouds still threatened our view of totality.
Fortunately, the sky conditions continued to offer a good view of the partial phases. In the final 60 seconds before totality, I pulled the solar filters off my telescopes and video cameras. Reassured by the sound of cameras firing automatically via computer control, I watched the sky by naked eye as the shadow approached. It was only now that I realized our group was surrounded by curious locals who found us as interesting as the celestial event above. Some 10 seconds before contact I could make out the corona during the diamond ring effect.
Totality! We were in the Moon's umbral shadow (09:13am). I was now experiencing my 22nd total eclipse. But unlike most of the other eclipses I've witnessed, I actually had time to watch this one. Instead of being completely preoccupied with the manual operation of camera sequences, the Eclipse Orchestrator software freed me to enjoy much of the visual spectacle.
Of course, I had programmed several pauses in the computer program script so that I could check the telescope tracking and re-center if necessary. I also adjusted the exposure of video being shot with my Nikon D90. The rest of the time I was able to take in and enjoy the incredible sight.
Venus was nearly overhead but a thick band of cirrus blocked Mercury from view. The cirrus also interfered with both viewing and photography of the outer corona. The high altitude cloud layer acted as a diffuser to imaging especially at the longer exposures. Nevertheless, the inner corona was seen in great detail. Polar brushes were evident and a splendid arc prominence became visible along the 3rd contact limb as totality drew to a close.
When Baily's Beads appeared in my telescope, the crowd around us roared in applause. A naked eye view revealed the growing diamond ring as the corona quickly faded in the glare. Totality was over as daylight returned.
We took time now to congratulate each other on the brilliant strategic move of flying 1300 km to Chongqing. In hindsight the plan seems so obvious, but I must admit that I had serious doubts about the gambit conceived just 24 hours earlier. I am by no means a meteorologist. I hoped that the information gleaned from computer models on several web sites was not only correct but that my interpretation was leading to a successful eclipse plan. Or maybe we were just lucky. In any case, it rained at our original Haiyan hotel during totality.
I was one of the last people in the group still taking photographs at 4th contact (10:31am). After a marathon job of repacking my equipment, we took a bus tour of Chongqing, ate lunch, and returned for the airport for our evening flight. All 37 of us wore big smiles all the way back to Shanghai.
The 2009 eclipse is of special significance to me because it represents a couple of personal milestones. I have now exceeded 60 minutes of accumulated time in the Moon's shadow during total eclipses spanning nearly 40 years. It also marks the first time I've observed an Exeligmos (three consecutive eclipses from the same Saros series). Two other people in our tour group (Audie Barnette and Greg Webb) also celibrated an Exeligmos during this eclipse. Indeed the three of us first met 36 years ago in the African Sahara during the total solar eclipse of 1973 Jun 30. The following member of Saros 136 occurred on 1991 Jul 11. For more information on Saros 136 and the Exeligmos, see Periodicity of Solar Eclipses.
Photos of the 2009 eclipse to be posted soon!
Commemorate the 2009 total solar eclipse with these unique shirts, hats, bags and mugs. With a maximum duration of over 6 1/2 minutes, this is the longest total eclipse of the 21st century!
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Last revised: 2009 Aug 19