Paul D. Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, Houston TX USA


The 18th RING OF FIRE EXPEDITION led by this writer journeyed to Thailand, India, and Nepal in order to once again bear witness to one of nature’s most splended performances. Southeast Asia has always been a fascinating part of the world steeped in legends and mysticism. For example, in Thailand (formerly Siam) King Rama IV predicted there would be a total eclipse of the sun in 1868 and invited the ambassadors of France and England to witness it. The envoys were duly impressed, though whether the episode helped to stave off the colonialization of Thailand is a matter of historical debate. King Rama died a few months later from malaria contracted while observing the eclipse.

As a prelude to our experience I examined the local newspapers just a few days before the October 24th eclipse in order to get a hint of the important stories of the moment: 1) Malaysia’s national planetarium will investigate sightings of UFO’s at a small village south of the capital of Kuala Lumpur which has lured hundreds of onlookers each night. Clusters of bright lights have been seen in the sky after dusk in the past few weeks and were said to disappear just before dawn; 2) In neighboring Iran, a man was given 20 lashes of the whip for disguising himself as a woman in order to ride in the women’s section of a bus in Tehran. He had braved the adventure to win a bit of $25 but was given away by his large size and men’s shoes; 3) The festival of Diwali occurs in India during eclipse week. Diwali celebrates the disspelling of spiritual darkness. In contrast one temple was to take special measures to minimize the effects of the eclipse. Normally the temple is off limits to lower caste Hindus. On eclipse day the shrine will be opened to everyone. The wealthy are to throw rice and wheat at the poor from the roof of the temple building. After the lower casts collect as much grain as they can, their rich benefactors were to purify the temple by washing it with milk.

Last Febraury I had scouted a number of possible observation points and finally selected a school near the village of Pinahat, India. After a 28 hour flying journey on six separate flights, fifteen JSCAS expedition members wintessed totality near the center of the eclipse path, experiencing about 56 seconds of complete solar blackout under clear skies on Tuesday, October 24. Two other members rented a car and along with Indian amateur astronomer Arun Shankar observed from a station 1.8km inside the southern edge of the path near Dholpur; still another expedition member watched from a site 1.5km inside the northern edge at Kiraoli. Both locations were in Uttar Pradesh state. The edge observations made by Richard Nugent (a Houston, Texas real estate broker), Isao Sato (who works at the National Astronomical Observatory in Tokyo, Japan), and Chuck Herold (a ISO 9000 auditor from Austin, Texas) were designed to provide successive documentation of lunar mountain features to assist in measuring changes in the diameter of the sun. These bright features, called Baily’s Beads, are prolonged at the edge of the eclipse path track as the motion of the moon relative to the sun appear to be the slowest at the tangent points. Video tapes were made as the moon and sun came together during the eclipse which enables calculation of observed versus predicted limb features.

This marked the fourth consecutive solar eclipse seen by JSCAS members in the previous 17 months. This time we were set up near Agra, the city where the fabled Taj Mahal can be found, a beautiful marble palace. The centerline passed through the Chambal River area, one that is well known and avoided because of it being the home base of legendary bandits called dacoits. I had planned a route which would skirt the region, a 40 minute bus trip to the site, but a recent flood had washed out the only wood plank bridge on the road to the site.

Before dawn we noted the sky was exceptionally clear. There was no haze down to about 5 degrees elevation, whereas the previous (and following) days haze was noted up to 20 degrees elevation. We had to negotiate an alternate three hour drive to get to the site which forced us to cross the Chambal River. our base was a village called Parachitpura, south of a bigger village of Pinahat. I had reserved a school exclusively for our use and located exactly on the centerline. Many other expeditions had chosen sites much farther away to the west which resulted in less total eclipse time. So we were essentially alone. During the perceding months a bathroom of sorts had been erected on the roof of the school with a large TOILET sign posted for us to see. I am not aware that anyone actually tried it out; but it was located right next to the area where most persons chose to observe.

The group departed its hotel in Agra at 330am and we were soon in position by the time the sun rose. At 834am with the sun 27 degrees up, the moon’s shadow started to pass over us. It was difficult to read exposure dials on cameras in contrast to the previous eclipse in Peru (November 1994) where reading small letters was not an issue. Crowds of curious Indian locals gathered to watch from respectful distances. This was the second total eclipse to cross India in 15 years. I recall that in 1983 while at an eclipse in Indonesia, those villagers vanished as totality approached; the locals Indians stayed in place and cheered and clapped when the sun became eclipsed. Many of them shared small mylar sun viewers during the partial phases.

Brilliant diamond rings could be seen at both 2nd and 3rd contacts. The effect was due to the very narrow eclipse path which made it more like the annular eclipse of May 1984 where beads were prominent well away from the edges of the eclipse path. I was able to capture both diamond rings on ASA 400 film. Deep lunar valleys near the moon’s equator also caused small points of light to bulge out at these times creating the impression that you were viewing a ring with smaller diamonds on either side of the main diamond. Many onlookers were truly dumbfounded and expressed genuine amazement as the outer atmosphere of the sun was revealed.

One resident of Delhi could not contain himself, jumping with joy at the sight. The pearly white corona extended at least 2.5 solar diameters outward on either side of the sun, very characteristic of the normal appearance when solar activity is low. Broad streamers extended out from the equator and small plumes jutted out from both north and south solar poles. I could see a few small prominences standing out on the limb, but none that were really outstanding. Venus and Mercury leaped into view as if activated by a lanyard pull. One was 17 degrees to the east and the other 17 degrees to the west. At least one bright star, Arcturus was spotted in the eastern sky. Farther along the path, Venus was reported to have been observed until 20 minutes after the end of totality.

At the eclipse edge sites both science teams were caught off guard by what they thought was an unexpectedly short duration of the total phase. The teams commented that instead of the predicted 28 seconds, they saw only 5 seconds of totality. Large chunky arcs predominated at the edge which made it only appear that totality had been reduced. Here at the edge, onlookers gathered to see the rarely seen Americans, not because of the eclipse itself!

At the centerline several observers were so caught up in the experience that they forgot about their preplanned experiments and simply watched as the total phase seemd to end as quickly as it had begun. Even the better photographers were only able to fire off 6 or 7 shots, taking some time in between to gaze at the sight. The air temperature which had been stable at 68 deg F. dropped less than 2 degrees due to totality. The eclipse wind was not felt. One of my pet projects was to attempt to observe an artificial earth satellite; however, the one candidate was too far away to be seen.

In keeping with the tradition of accepting anyone interested in seeing the eclipse regardless of their astronomical experience, we had a varied group of observers with us. Most had seen at least one eclipse before. Dr.Charleen Moore, a professor of Genetics at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, Texas, projected images of the partially eclipsed sun on the wall of the main school building with a pair of Leitz binoculars. Students at the school and their elders could then watch the progression of the eclipse by means of this projection and also with a small hole cut in a piece of cardboard projected in a shoebox. one of the best views of the sun was with #14 welders glass employed by Dr. Lynn Palmer, a biostatistician at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who also recorded ambient air temperature changes. Dr. Glenn Roark, an Austin, Texas psychiatrist (and former pediatrician to NASA astronaut Jim Newman who flew on STS-69 just two months before this eclipse) used two cameras to photograph the advancing moon cross the sun. Dr. Larry Sonders, a physician from Scarsdale NY and colleague of NASA astronaut Jeff Hoffman’s father) employed a unipod as a mount for a pair of binoculars. Houston urologist Dr. Glen Lewis probably got the best naked eye view of the eclipse since he was not encumbered by any instrumentation. Reon Wadsworth, a tool and dye maker, operated a time lapsed video for over two hours, capturing each moment of the eclipse process. Retired USAF colonel Dick Mischke walked half a mile away to set up by himself in order to get good foreground material for his photos; former insurance agent Becky Schultz watched every second and recorded her impressions on a tape recorder.

I photographed the sun through a Celestron 5 and consumed a 12-exposure roll of ASA 400 Kodacolor. My Takahashi Space Boy tracked perfectly on four D-cell batteries. Seven clear images of the corona were obatined. These included shots of the diamond rings, prominences and chromosphere. Following 3rd contact an aircraft contrail was seen underneath the sun, and a loud sonic boom was heard. The eclipse team converged onto a huge tent which housed chairs, box lunches and two magnums of champagne. It was difficult to talk about anything other than the amazing sight we had all seen. Souvenir t-shirst were passed out to each tour member and speeches were made by the Indians thanking us for participating in their village. Photos were taken of everybody and after spending nearly four hours at the site, we reboarded our bus for the return trip to Agra.

The school which we had used for the brief time will hopefully benefit from the funds that we donated for the occasion. If the Indians had never before seen the Texas flag, they certainly know what one looks like now.

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