Eclipse Report


Libya, March 29th 2006.

Mike Gill had been watching the weather models for days. The weather models indicated nothing but clear skies for Libya. Confirmation that we'd made the right decision. Meanwhile over in Turkey, we knew that the people misdirected to Side weren't just biting their fingernails but were chewing the ends of their fingers off! It looked like they were going to be clouded out. We found out that the rest of the gang from the Cameron Corner expedition Glenn Schneider, Joel Moskowitz, Jay Friedland, Craig Small et al were in Side desperately trying to charter a plane to fly from Turkey to Egypt. They worked out a travel plan that involved non-stop travel for the 36 hrs up to the eclipse. If everything fell into place, they might just make it into the NW corner of Egypt.

We made our way to the airport for our charter flight to Jalu. Things were chaotic at the airport. As usual, Saad slipped us past the long queues and checked our bags with a minimum of fuss. We waited for about an hour until boarding call. As we walked onto the tarmac, I shook my head in disbelief as one woman lit a cigarette only 30 metres from where they were refuelling our plane. It was a100 minute flight to Jalu. At Jalu, we were transported by bus to the Eclipse City camp on the centreline about 80km SE of Jalu. We hired tents at the camp, through STS. STS built and provisioned the camp. The camp was amazing. It was built on the Great Sand Sea, a dry sandy patch of desert. STS set up two large marquees, dining rooms that could hold 500 people each. The tents were Arabian tents with tall centre poles about 4 x 4 metres. Two people per tent. Each tent was supplied with mattresses, pillows and sleeping bags. Along each tent row were electric lights and power outlets that could be used for recharging batteries. A satellite uplink next to a marquee with about 20 computers inside provided the camp with broadband internet. This tent also served as a temporary but official post office. Each corner of the camp had shower & toilet blocks - sufficient that I never saw much of a line for toilets or showers for the 3000 inhabitants of the camp. We found our tents, Bengt and Saas shared one tent, Mike and I shared the other.

The afternoon before eclipse morning, I assembled my telescope gear. Meanwhile, Mike was having some difficulty coming to terms with his newfound celebrity. Since arriving at the camp, our tent had received a steady stream of visitors. Mainly people had just come to meet the "famous" Mike Gill. Mike's fame had come suddenly two years earlier when he took over the moderation of the Solar Eclipse Mailing List. Now everyone wanted to meet him. Mike is a very modest person and was finding his new celebrity hard to process. Tongue firmly in cheek, I asked him if I could set up an autograph booth. We'd charge of course. I'd take a commission and we could recoup some of our travel expenses. Our visitors delivered a steady stream of gossip. OF note were a couple of reports we received of brand new mid-range DSLR's that had ground to a halt in the desert dust.

My equipment consisted of an 80mm ED refractor mounted on a lightweight equatorial mount that I've designed and constructed myself. Because of the high altitude of this eclipse I left the short legs at home and brought full-length legs. The legs were made from pine 19 x 42mm. The Sun's declination was just 5 degrees so I replaced the old declination axis with two hinged boards held together by a strong spring and pushed apart by a screw (a barn door). This gave me a rock solid adjustable declination, balanced on the centre of the RA axis (no counterweight required). The equatorial wedge was likewise made of wood. All these components were quick and easy to fabricate from about $30 worth of pine. They weighed 5kg more than the old arrangement. It pushed my baggage weight up to 27kg and Lufthansa hit me for 105 Euros of excess baggage charges. But the long legs did raise the telescope high enough that I could kneel comfortably in the sand and look up into the camera comfortably even though the eclipse altitude was quite high. After the eclipse, I discarded all the wooden components reducing my baggage weight to an excess free 22kg. This was all part of the grand plan. I had a further 7 weeks of travel planned after the eclipse and didn't want to be weighed down.

I assembled the equatorial mount. I mounted the 80mm refractor and pointed it at the Sun. I then proceeded to do a polar alignment. I locked the declination and left the refractor mounted that night. This would simplify polar alignment the next day. The tent was tall enough that even though I had tall tripod legs on it, I was able leave it standing in the tent. At sunset we walked out to the west side of the camp, less than 50 metres from our tent, and watched the green flash at sunset.

That night we went for dinner. There were some long delays at meal times. The dining tents could seat about 1000 people. It was designed that people would come in, eat and move out so that others could come in. People were waiting for hours for dinner on the first night. Unfortunately, too many people stayed too long and treated it more like a long social occasion than a rapid turnover chow house. Tempers frayed and when one group attempted to bypass the long line, a heated exchange ensued. Luckily for us, Saad didn't try any of his tricks this time. Some complained bitterly about it. But think about it, out in the middle of the desert, they'd created two bistro's capable of seating 1000 people. What were they supposed to do, have seating for 3000?

Eclipse day
At 5am, I woke with a splitting sinus headache. I'd suffered a bad bout of sinusitis on arriving in Europe the week before. The aftermath was these head splitters every couple of days. The pain was so severe that I briefly considered skipping the eclipse and staying in bed. But I dragged myself out of bed and we made the first shift for breakfast and got it out of the way quickly. Our tents were located in the southwest quadrant of the camp. We took a walk around the open area on the west side and selected an observing location. We returned to the tents and began carrying our equipment to the observing site.

I levelled my telescope mount and then pointed it at the sun using movements in polar axis azimuth and RA only. This combined with the locked dec the day before gave me a method of almost instantaneous polar alignment. It worked well. Considering the way I was feeling, it was just as well.

John Beattie rolled up on the day (as he does) and joined us. For those who don't know, John, at the time, had 26 eclipses under his belt. The partial eclipse began on time. Lot's of shouts echoed around the camp as the lunar disk became visible first in bigger telescopes then to the naked eye through eclipse shades. Part way through the partial eclipse, the Muslim followers gathered near us and stopped for midday prayers. It was a nice touch. The umbra appeared over the southwest horizon. It moved slowly at first then sped up rapidly. Venus was easily visible to the naked eye.

In addition to the telescope, I had an 18mm wide angle lens and 35mm film camera on a tripod. I had no digital body, just two 35mm bodies and no automation. My plan was to
shoot all partial phases at 3 minute intervals through the ED80. My 35mm film SLR has a built in interval shooter so this is a 'set and forget' operation.

Take wide angle photo's of the shadow approach before 2nd contact;
Take a 360 degree panorama of the 360 degree sunset effect during totality;
Take a picture of totality, the eclipsed sun and the peaked tops of the tents using my 6x9cm medium format camera.
Shoot totality through the 80mm f7.5 refractor at every shutter speed 1/1000 - 8 s. ISO 200 film. 14 frames only.
Amazing, if all went to plan all this should only take me 2 minutes leaving me 2 minutes to just watch and enjoy before returning to the camera to photograph the diamond ring.

I took a couple of wide-angle views of the shadow approach using the 18mm lens. Then I jumped across to the ED80 to shoot the diamond ring. What? No image! Had the drive stopped? No, it was still running. Unfortunately, somewhat stupidly, I'd left the solar filter on the camera. Fifth total eclipse I'd photographed but the first time I forgot to remove the filter. I took it off and took my fourteen-exposure sequence. Then I set the shutter speed for diamond ring and went back to the wide-angle images. I finished my photography and took my two minutes of 'me' time. During this time , I found myself questioning if eclipses were worth all the effort. In short, I had a major case of the of ho hums. I later put this down to the severe headache that I was still suffering from. I returned to the 80mm refractor to shoot the diamond ring. And then it was over.

After the eclipse, Mike and Bengt left the country the next day. I went to Serbha, gateway to the Sahara desert. I stayed in the country another 5 days and got an unforgettable look at the wonder that is the Sahara desert. Ok so I admit it, I'm a desert junkie. Some people like beaches, I like mountains and deserts. I've been all over the many deserts of the Australian continent, explored the Martian like landscapes of the desierte de Atacama in Bolivia and Chile and now I could add the Sahara to my list. I did have one stroke of luck, so to speak. One of our cars broke down. It happened that we broke down in the midst of a fantastic dune field. Our destination that night was an oasis. These dunes at sunset and especially at sunrise were truely a sight to behold. A perfect way to end my all too brief sojourn in Libya.

Joe Cali