On the road: Annular eclipse trip, May 18, 2012

Posted by Rich Talcott
on Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rich Talcott sifts through the sand at an archeological demonstration at the Museum of Northern Arizona. // All photos by Evelyn Talcott
Nature has dealt a nasty blow to Arizona these past few days. Near-record heat (Phoenix hit 107° Fahrenheit a couple of days ago) and massive wildfires have plagued the state, with no signs of relief in sight. But nature will offer an olive branch of sorts to residents and visitors to northern Arizona on Sunday. The Moon will pass directly in front of the Sun late that afternoon, creating an annular solar eclipse along a path nearly 200 miles wide.

I’m here with MWT Associates, Inc., to see the eclipse and tour the major astronomical sites of Arizona and New Mexico. And I'm joined by 32 other eclipse enthusiasts from around the world who began the adventure Thursday afternoon in Phoenix. We escaped the heat quickly and rode north to more comfortable weather in Flagstaff. After a restful night, Friday began with talks about desert and eclipse photography by renowned photographer Dennis Mammana and an eclipse primer by yours truly.

This close-up shows the blink comparator that Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto at Lowell Observatory.
After lunch, we headed off to the Museum of Northern Arizona. The museum has great displays that trace the geological history of the Four Corners region, describe what archaeologists have learned and continue to discover about the ancient cultures that have occupied this area for more than 10,000 years, and detail the ongoing lives of the Navaho, Hopi, and other tribes that live here.

We spent the evening at historic Lowell Observatory, located on Mars Hill overlooking the city. The observatory is famous as the place where Percival Lowell recorded “canals” on Mars, but deserves more acclaim as the spot where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto and Vesto Slipher observed the redshifts in galaxy spectra that helped Edwin Hubble establish that the universe is expanding. But Lowell astronomers continue to perform cutting-edge research. We listened to Gerard T. van Belle describe how he uses optical interferometry to measure the fundamental properties of stars and their planetary systems. After the talk, we got a chance to view through the 24-inch Alvan Clark refractor that Lowell used to delineate the martian canals. Instead of observing Mars, however, we were treated to exquisite views of Saturn and its rings.

Saturday's agenda: a visit to Meteor Crater and then on to Canyon de Chelly, from where we’ll watch Sunday’s eclipse.

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