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Asian Total Eclipse July 2009

Listed under Astronomy in North Central China, China.

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A total eclipse of the sun is the most awesome sight in the heavens, and everyone should try to see one in a clear sky at least once in their lifetime. Partial eclipses give no hint whatsoever of the surreal majesty and glory of totality. In March 2006 thousands of eclipse chasers when to places like Antalya, Turkey and the Libya-Egypt border to witness one of the grandest of all natural spectacles. Total solar eclipses are rare events that affect only a tiny portion of the earth's surface each time they occur. The next big one sweeps across Asia in July 2009. The following is a description of the 2006 event in Antalya:

Just after 12:30 a small bite was taken out of the sun, as viewed safely through eclipse glasses. The main event, totality, did not take place until just before 2, so we had to be patient during the partial phase. A partial solar eclipse is not very interesting; only a total eclipse is worth bothering to see. However, towards the end of the partial phase of a total solar eclipse, things start to get interesting. In this case, a chilly wind began to blow, prompting me to put on a sweater (the day had been uncomfortably hot until then). The light became attenuated and strange, as if viewing the world through a polarizing filter. Birds became agitated. The sun was gradually reduced to just a sliver. There is something unsettling about total solar eclipses that I can’t quite put my finger on, but all other eclipse watchers I have asked have admitted feeling this too. The event must register in some primitive part of the brain that says something truly exceptional, and potentially catastrophic, is taking place. For me this “eclipse anxiety” occurs only during the lead-up to totality; once totality occurs it is replaced by awe and fascination. As the sun became a tiny, slender but still brilliant sliver, others around us were chattering in an obviously nervous manner.

In the minutes before totality the light turned very strange indeed. Weird ripples danced across the ground, called shadow bands. These were clearly visible but less vivid than during the 2001 eclipse we saw in Africa. All of a sudden the planet Venus shone brilliantly over the Bey Mountains. The shadow of the moon was engulfing us. A dazzling point of light, the “diamond” part of the Diamond Ring, was all that remained of the fiery disk of the sun; then it too was abruptly extinguished. Now the moon was poised perfectly over the sun’s disk, allowing the lacy white outer atmosphere of the sun, the corona, to become visible. The corona curved in graceful arcs from the solar poles to the solar equator, where it formed long glowing extensions for millions of miles into the blackness of space. The shape of the corona is unique to every eclipse. Several fiery red solar prominences were visible curling into view beyond the black disk of the moon. I studied the luminous white lines of the corona, and the fiery red prominences, through my binoculars. Then I surveyed the strange scene surrounding me. Across the harbor, atop the travertine cliffs, the sudden darkness had triggered the street lights of Antalya to come on. Beyond the black silhouette of the Bey Mountains an orange sunset-like glow heralded the coming end of totality. I looked at the eclipse again through binoculars, and noticed that the fiery prominences on one side were becoming more exposed. This was the cue to put the binoculars down (otherwise blindness would result!), for the total phase was coming to an end. Suddenly the brilliant Diamond shone again, after which we had to look away as the crowd of onlookers cheered the return of the sun. The total eclipse had seemed all too brief, lasting just over 3 minutes, but it had been magnificent. The experienced eclipse chasers in our group were ecstatic, calling it the best they had ever seen. Those who had never seen a total eclipse before were even more excited and asked, when is the next one??

In the euphoric afterglow of totality, we amused ourselves by observing all the little crescents projected onto the ground through the trees (the gaps in foliage act as pinhole cameras, projecting an image of the sliver of the sun) as the partial phase gradually reversed itself. Through eclipse glasses, the crescent sun appeared to me as a big smile.

Written by  Mike Lyvers.

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