Off to Australia for the total solar eclipse

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The wonders of the southern sky shine forth in this image, and our group will observe them all. The two bright stars centered are Alpha (left) and Beta Centauri. They point toward the right to the sky’s smallest constellation — but one of the most famous: Crux the Southern Cross. The reddish patch to the lower right, just above the palm tree, is the spectacular Eta Carinae Nebula. // photo by Tunç Tezel
The big astronomy event of 2012 — and, in my opinion, an example of the most dramatic event you can witness — is only a week away. Next Wednesday, November 14, observers in the right locations will witness a total solar eclipse. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the path of the Moon’s shadow along Earth’s surface occurs over the waters of the South Pacific. Most, but not all.

If you’re lucky enough to be under a clear sky in northeastern Australia, you’ll see an example of what I like to call sublime celestial geometry. For 2 minutes, the Moon’s orbit will align exactly along the Earth-Sun line, and our satellite’s shadow will create a narrow zone of darkness — totality!

As the lead astronomer for a trip organized by Astronomical Tours from Warrensburg, Missouri, I, along with my wife, Holley, embark tomorrow on a journey through the land Down Under to see the eclipse. We’ll return November 20.

The flights don’t thrill me, but I’ll live. We fly from Milwaukee to Houston, then to San Francisco, and then to Sydney. The final leg takes 13½ hours, but the jet’s a 747, so there will be room to move about.

We arrive early and have the day free in Sydney before our first group dinner that evening. The following day, we fly to Cairns, where we’ll spend the better part of a week. From that base, we’ll visit the Great Barrier Reef (I’m looking forward to snorkeling there), board the famous Kuranda Railway for a tour of the rainforest along one of the world’s most scenic routes, and then return to the lowlands via the Skyrail Cableway, which will take us above the rainforest’s canopy.

The 14th is eclipse day. You’d think after seeing 11 totalities, I’d be burned out. Nothing could be further from the truth! Astronomical Tours reserved an eastward-facing beach for our group, and we’ll be there and set up well before sunrise.

After the eclipse, we’ll do more touring. The location I’m looking forward to the most is Ayers Rock. Also known as Uluru and the Red Centre, this World Heritage Site lies 280 miles (450 kilometers) by road from the nearest town, Alice Springs. Of course, I want to see and photograph this legendary island mountain, but what I really want to do is observe the Southern Hemisphere sky from one of the darkest spots on Earth.

I don’t know how many eclipse-chasers will make this trip, but two of them work here with me. Both Editor David J. Eicher and Senior Editor Rich Talcott also are leading eclipse groups.

Stay tuned for lots of coverage on Astronomy.com — by all three of us. I’ll post updates and images from the trip if Internet access is available. People have assured me it is, but I’ve heard that before. If not, I’ll post a roundup and lots of great shots as soon as I return.

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