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Report on the Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 June 21

by Jacques Guertin (Lusaka, ZAMBIA)

Almost two years since the great eclipse over Turkey; much too long without a corona and prominence fix! So, with luck, the June 21, 2001 total eclipse would take care of this dire need.

After crossing the South Atlantic ocean, the moon’s umbral shadow first contacts land in the early afternoon on the west coast of Angola where the duration of totality is 4 minutes 36 seconds. 21 minutes later, the moon’s shadow reaches Zambia where totality lasts 4 minutes 6 seconds. Then, the eclipse path continues over Zimbabwe and Mozambique, leaving Africa, crossing the Indian Ocean, crossing Madagascar, and the eclipsed sun sets over the Indian Ocean where duration of totality has decreased to about 2 minutes.

The Adventure

June 17-19. After an overnight stay in New York, PAS members Jeff Buell, Bill Sorrells, Pam and Brian Day, Debra Tjernagel, and Jacques Guertin, took a 16 hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa (stopping for fuel at Ilha Do Sal [or simply Sal], Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa). The full TravelQuest group of some 100 eclipse chasers meet over dinner that evening.

June 20. There is little time to visit Johannesburg as we fly to Lusaka, Zambia, arriving early afternoon. Lusaka, 15d25mS latitude, 28d17mE longitude, is well within the path of totality, albeit not near center line. Thus, after Jeff and I have settled in our room, I decide to explore the possibility of viewing the eclipse right at the hotel in Lusaka. Duration of totality in Lusaka would be about 3 min 10 s, whereas duration of totality near center line at Chisamba, the arranged viewing location for our group, would be 3 min 30 s. Thus, staying in Lusaka would sacrifice 20 s of totality, not bad if there are compelling reasons to stay at the hotel.

Well, since for this eclipse I have new equipment (AP 900GTO mount) and will need to find rocks for a counterweight (a la Jeff Buell), I'm concerned that going on a bus to center line might not give me enough time to set up. But, perhaps more important is that I now have a touch of diarrhea! So, I immediately begin to explore the hotel surroundings for possible viewing locations. There are three possible spots. The hotel swimming pool has considerable flat concrete that is relatively cool. But, many people use the pool and tomorrow, on eclipse day, there may be a crowd. Also, the morning sun is blocked by trees and the hotel. Another seemingly better location is a large grassy flat area next to the hotel. But, the site already has are about 50 Japanese setting up equipment and marking their positions. I would be concerned with crowding and noise (I like to listen to an audio timer during the eclipse). The third possibility is the roof of the hotel! Recall that this was the right choice for me for the Turkey eclipse. A few words of my intent to the hotel manager results in the assignment of the hotel engineer as my roof guide. Although the very top roof of the hotel is not suitable (sloped, flexible metal), a secondary, flat, concrete roof, 3 floors up is perfect. The concrete is even almost white: cooler and perfect for shadow bands. This location would give me an almost 360 degree view of the horizon with the sun not blocked at all after 09h00. I make the decision that I would view the eclipse for this location and would deal with the problem of getting 70 kg (160 lb) of equipment up a dangerous ladder to the roof. I'm somewhat relieved when the hotel engineer tells me that he will have two more staff members to help me tomorrow.

After discussing eclipse logistics at dinner this evening, Jeff and I retire to our room. While Jeff does some preassembly of his 102 mm (4-inch) AP refractor, I go out in search of rocks for our counterweights. An unpaved driveway has the perfect rocks. After getting permission from staff, I gather about 10 kg of rocks, enough for both of us. Meanwhile, I'm drawing a number of onlookers who have rather strange grins. I guess they must think I'm nuts. (Of course, everyone knows that I'm eccentric, right?!)

Jeff has difficulty sleeping: quite normal the night before an eclipse. But, for the first time since I can remember going to eclipses, I able to get a reasonable night's sleep. I guess having worked out my location logistics and the predicted clear skies for tomorrow helped.

June 21. Eclipse Day! After breakfast, I see my group off to Chisamba at 09h00. I know I will miss the ambience and camaraderie of our group but now I have much work to do. First contact is only about 4.5 h away.

Even with help from three staff members, it would take 1.5 hours to get my equipment onto the roof. Remember that ladder I mentioned earlier. As expected, negotiating this ladder with all the equipment is difficult, indeed. Since I had no way of preassembling anything in the hotel room, it would take another hour to simply remove all the pieces from my luggage. Everything is heavily bubble-wrapped with a considerable amount of tape. It is now 12h00, about 2 hours before first contact.

It takes me more than 2 hours to set up and align with the south celestial pole, my diarrhea forcing me to frequently stop setting up and go back to my room. Finally, I'm all set up and tracking well. It is 13h50, about 8 minutes past first contact! My first look at sun through the telescope confirms that the eclipse has indeed begun and that we got the eclipse date right. Also, I'm pleased that the 'seeing' is good, as considerable detail is visible in the numerous sunspots and the lunar mountains in profile against the sun are obvious. Over the next hour, watching the moon slowly obscure more and more of the sun is quite relaxing. Meanwhile, my three helpers are joined by three hotel staff ladies, who almost fall off the ladder getting onto the roof. You see, they are still wearing their work clothes, tight dresses and low heels! Strangely, while my three male helpers are thoroughly enjoying looking at the partial phases through my telescope, the three ladies do not wish to look. It seems likely that superstition (fear) and misinformation still exists in Africa regarding eclipses of the sun.

13h06min (about 3 minutes before totality). Yow, shadow bands like I have never seen before: strong contrast and rapid, wavy movement! They are all over, including the wall of the hotel building. Unfortunately, there is no one ready with a camera to take a picture. The shadow bands continue right up to second contact as the waning crescent of the sun shrinks to almost nothing. It has gotten at least 20 degrees F cooler over the last 15 minutes and the lighting has become quite strange, almost white.

13h09min00sec. 20 seconds before totality! My solar filter is off and I get off 3 shots, about 10 seconds apart. This captures Baily's beads, the diamond ring, and the chromosphere. I now pause to look through the telescope. FANTASTIC! There is a large detached prominence just floating in space, with numerous small chunks of flame linking it to the edge of the 'moon'. And, just next to the prominence are a bunch of thin, near vertical prominences. As my eye continues to examine the edge of the sun's disk, I note 3 more good size prominence groups. Although this is total eclipse number 15 that I have seen, I can never get used to the incredible beauty of these pink hydrogen flames. I decide to make sure that my focus is perfect. This turns out to be a mistake. The problem is that I don't see the marks on the focusing screen very well (they are in the black moon area) and my eyesight is not so good. Thus, my remaining shots are all slightly out of focus. In hindsight, I should have moved the image slightly to make the marks more visible but I didn't think of doing this, choosing to simply make the image as sharp as possible while barely seeing the focusing marks. Or, I should have just left the focus alone! You see, every eclipse is a learning experience. All this fussing around has consumed perhaps one minute. Yet, I take another 20 seconds to look directly up at the eclipsed sun and the sky around. Simply gorgeous! An awesome sight indeed. Jupiter is prominent directly under the sun. The corona is nearly symmetrical (however, there are 3 or 4 sharp thin coronal spikes; this is similar to that at the 1999 total eclipse), consistent with solar maximum activity. At about mid totality, I take a shot of the inner corona (all I can get at my effective focal length of 2,950 mm).

13h12min00sec. My voice tape tells me that there are only 30 s of totality remaining. I quickly start my last photo sequence. My first of these shots captures the chromosphere just before third contact; my second one captures Baily's beads, but I'm a little late to get the full diamond ring. It appears about 15 s earlier than calculated based on the mean lunar limb profile. Now I recall that large deep valley in the lunar limb profile at third contact shown in the 1999 NASA bulletin for this eclipse (drawing by Fred Espenak). Moments later, shadow bands once again appear but I'm too excited to notice them much. The hotel staff next to me are jumping up and down, yelling all sorts of things in African (because I have no idea what they are saying), shaking my hand, and hugging me (as if I had something to do in causing this spectacular event). Three minutes of totality have gone by in what seems like less than a minute. It's always this way during a total eclipse. Perhaps time would seem more normal if I just viewed the eclipse and did not take any pictures. Some day I will just bring a pair of binoculars! (You all believe that, don't you?)

After a few more partial shots, I spend the next 3 hours taking down the equipment and packing it for the trip back to the hotel room. I really can't say enough as to how great the hotel staff was in helping me. Back at the hotel, my celebration dinner is spent with a chicken burger and a glass of wine as my companion: not quite the fine table served at the Chisamba Safari Lodge to the rest of the TravelQuest group. But, with the eclipse only a few hours ago, I don't seem to mind much. In fact, it would take 3 days for my adrenaline to return to normal.

June 22 - June 25. I spend the next few days being a tourist. First we visit Victoria Falls from both the Zambia side and Zimbabwe side. With the considerable summer rains that occurred this year, the Zambezi River is very high and the falls are the best since at least 20 years. More than 1 million gallons of water flow over the falls every second! In perspective, these falls are much larger than Niagara Falls are a must for anyone going to South Africa. We end our visit to Africa with a safari in Kruger National Park where we are quite lucky to see all the major animals except rhinoceros. In some instances, I would have liked to go closer to the animals (e.g., large crocodiles and hippopotamuses were just too far away for a full appreciation) but could not for safety reasons and lack of time.

June 26. After getting up at 05h30 for one last safari run, we head home. Taking advantage of a 6 hour layover in Johannesburg before departing for United States, we drive about 100 km, to see a relatively-recent 200,000 year old meteorite crater called Tswaing (the crater has a diameter of 1.4 km and is 200 m deep with a lake at the bottom). Although it is located only about 40 km northwest of Pretoria (the legislative capital of South Africa), our driver can't seem to find it. But, after two stops and numerous questions, we finally arrive at the crater only to see a 'closed' sign. But, luck is with us as the person in charge is still there and he lets us in. After 15 minutes of picture taking, we rush back to the airport with just enough time to make our plane, thus ending a wonderful trip to Africa.

2002 Total Eclipse of the Sun

The next total eclipse of the sun takes place on December 4, 2002. Whereas this eclipse again crosses Africa, it is the rainy season there. So, the best viewing location is probably 400 km north of Adelaide, Australia, where there is about a 65% chance of seeing the eclipse, albeit the eclipsed sun being at only about 8 degrees elevation with totality lasting only 32 seconds. Alternatively, the region in the general vicinity of Kruger National Park, South Africa, offers about a 60% chance of seeing the eclipse: nearly the same probability as Australia. So, this is a close decision. The NASA Reference Publication on this eclipse published by Fred Espenak and Jay Anderson should be available in a few months. I plan to issue a nite skies article on this eclipse.

2001 Total Eclipse Photos and Reports

2001 Total Eclipse Custom Prints

Solar Eclipse Photographs

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