Falling Stars: The World Cup, Moai, and an eclipse …

Posted by Mike Reynolds
on Monday, July 19, 2010

I captured this image of the partial phase of the total solar eclipse less than a minute before second contact. Mike Reynolds photo
To me, it was a surreal scene for the July 11 total solar eclipse on Easter Island, my 17th total solar eclipse. Although many would think this is a large number, I know several people I have had the fortune to travel with who have seen many more. Guess I am still a neophyte …

Our observing site on Easter Island was simply awe-inspiring, and ranks in my all-time top two eclipse sites (along with Chisamba, Zambia, in June 2001). To our left was a grouping of the famous Easter Island Moai, as if they were welcoming not only the visitors but also the eclipse, one of the most spectacular events in our solar system if not in creation itself. To our right was a group of people huddled under a thatched open hut watching the Netherlands take on Spain in the World Cup final. And in the middle: the Sun and Moon performing their celestial dance.

The day before totality, the weather did not look promising. Heavy rain and winds belted Easter Island. We had rain at our site up to 4 hours prior to the eclipse. The weather forecasts were all over the place, with prognostications from 67 percent cloud coverage to perfectly clear. We experienced close to the latter: ideal weather during the eclipse with the occasional cloud. During totality, the skies were perfect with one wispy cloud at third contact, which made for an interesting photograph.

Our longtime friends Skip and Susan Gilliland had brought their Coronado PST, so we were able to watch an unusual view of the partial phase as well as have an idea where to look for solar prominences during totality. Meanwhile, I was setting up my armada of equipment, or what seemed like one to my tolerant wife, Debbie. This included a Sony HD Videocam to image totality, a Canon 20Da DSLR with a 16mm lens to image the Moon’s shadow at 5-second intervals, and my main imaging instrument: an Explore Scientific 80mm APO f/6.3 with the Explore field flattener and the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera.

It was easy to observe first contact (the point when the Moon and Sun first appear to touch) as it occurred. The Moon continued its motion across the Sun, the soccer fans continued to watch the World Cup final, and the Moai stood their ground. Clouds darted in and out but were becoming thinner and farther apart.

About 30 minutes before second contact and totality, one could use a pinhole to project small partial solar eclipse images; always a fun activity. Leonard Tramiel, a friend from my Chabot Space & Science Center days, pointed out how one side of a shadow was still fuzzy (corresponding to the non-eclipsed side of the Sun) and the opposite side of the shadow much sharper. This is because the non-eclipsed part is an extended light source and the eclipsed side is basically acting like two pinpoints of light. It’s nice when the science works!

The July 11, 2010, total solar eclipse's second contact diamond ring. Mike Reynolds photo
The sky began to darken as more of the Sun was eclipsed. Several horses were grazing in the field behind us and taking in all of this activity in a casual manner. I did not notice much of a temperature drop as in past total solar eclipses (it was around 72° Fahrenheit). The wind had been quite breezy all day at around 10 to 20 mph and did not seem to pick up as we approached totality — something I have also noted during past eclipses. At about 10 minutes before second contact, I easily saw Venus with naked eyes. About 3 minutes later, I visually picked up Mercury. So now imagine an arc from the Moai on our left to the Sun-Moon to Mercury then Venus and back down to the World Cup fans (still) watching the game on TV.

The western sky began to darken like an approaching thunderstorm as the Moon’s shadow drew nearer. The Sun was now a very thin crescent with no clouds near it. Some of the soccer fans had stepped away from the World Cup to look up; perhaps they were trying to figure out why it was getting darker and darker. And the Moai were still standing guard.

It was time to start the videocam and the fisheye camera imaging sequence. A quick switch on for both and I was back looking at the surroundings as well as the spectacle. As the Moon’s shadow raced across the sky toward the Sun, I saw no clearly delineated shadow — a bit of a disappointment. The February 1979 total solar eclipse had a dynamic shadow; there we had a thin layer of high cirrus clouds and you could see that shadow moving across the sky! I literally ducked …

Some colors were present at the horizon; the sunset-sunrise effect. A kind-of washed-out sunset, but the main show was at about 40° in altitude. Sirius was now visible. I saw no shadow bands — the phenomena caused by the fading and sharpening sunlight passing through the Earth’s atmosphere, an effect occasionally creating dark-and-light bands racing across the ground. I have only seen shadow bands at maybe four total solar eclipses.

Totality during the July 11, 2010, total solar eclipse. Mike Reynolds photo
Suddenly, the beautiful second contact diamond ring appeared. This occurs when the last part of the Sun’s photosphere is visible and a little sunlight still “leaks” beyond the Moon’s limb. A few Bailey’s beads — more sunlight leaking through lunar valleys on the Moon’s limb — popped into view. There was a little limb redness due to the Sun’s chromosphere; this was not real prominent to me.

Then it got dark, really dark. The shadow of the Moon had reached our location and only the Sun’s corona and a few prominences were now visible. People were cheering, clapping, and yelling (I thought that maybe Spain or the Dutch had scored a goal). I had already begun taking photos through the Explore APO-Canon 5D combination. I took lots of exposures (100+) from 1/30 second to 1/8000 second at 400 ASA; the f/ratio is 6.3. Debbie rolled her eyes when I told her the number of images I had taken (you can see some of them in our Online Reader Gallery).

Several of us saw Wasat, a 3.5 magnitude star in the constellation Gemini, just west of the eclipsed Sun, with a telescope or binoculars. Someone thought we could see Comet McNaught; I thought the position was wrong and it would be way too faint. No comet … McNaught or otherwise; I did look. Perhaps I needed Robert McNaught or David Levy at my side!

The corona shape was definitely that of a solar minimum corona. The streamers were clear and sharp. The corona, even though somewhat symmetrical, did have some variations limb to limb. The two prominences we saw with Skip’s Coronado PST were there, along with an occasional prominence that seemed to pop in and out. I am always struck by the blackness of the Moon contrasted against the Sun’s corona. I was pausing from time to time to look around while observing and photographing through the Explore APO-Canon 5D combo.

A fluffy cloud passed over the third contact diamond ring, creating a spectacular shot. Mike Reynolds photo
As I looked out to the west, I could see the horizon beginning to lighten; the end of totality was at hand. More Bailey’s beads, chromosphere, and then a dazzling third contact diamond ring. Our 4 minutes and 36 seconds in the Moon’s umbral shadow was approaching an end. A fluffy cloud passed over the third contact diamond ring, actually making for a quite spectacular moment.
When we flew out of Easter Island later that day, I was surprised to see the solid clouds west of the island. This also reminded me how fortunate we were to see this spectacle.

For me, even a total hip replacement months prior to the eclipse could not keep me away, though it was difficult for me. There’s just something about total solar eclipses that keeps drawing me back. If you’ve never seen one, it is hard to explain. If you have, then you know what I am talking about.

In the end: Spain 1, Netherlands nil; a spectacular total solar eclipse; and the Moai are still standing guard. We were again in the right place at the right time in the universe to see one of nature’s spectacles. November 13, 2012, is next!

Related blogs:

On the Road: Easter Island and the Moai, by Michael Bakich

2010 eclipse pictures from Easter Island, by Karri Ferron

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