Total Solar Eclipse - 29th March 2006
In October 2005, when I was working in Athens with a team of Greek astronomers on the inspection of the Antikythera Mechanism – a possible early (~80BC) astronomical computer – I was invited to join their expedition to view the total solar eclipse of 29th March 2006. I had thought that the only practical places to view the eclipse were Libya and Turkey, but I was told about the small Greek island of Castellorizo (originally Italian “Castello Rosso”) just off the southern Turkish coastline and within the zone of totality. Castellorizo would see about three minutes of totality.
So my girlfriend and I flew to Athens to meet Xenophon Moussas, who picked us up from the airport. He would show us around Athens the following day he said, but only after his appearance on national television early in the morning. I couldn’t understand what he was saying on TV (it was all Greek to me!), but I got the impression he had just told the whole Greek population that the only part of Greece which could see totality was the small island of Castellorizo.
The day before the eclipse we flew off early in the morning to the island of Rhodes where we met up with some more of the team – students from Athens National University and had a short tour of the island. Also with us were some school children who had won their place on the trip in a competition. That evening, at a public meeting in Rhodes University, and to a packed hall, the school children gave some presentations on the Sun and the Moon, then Xenophon gave one on the eclipse. Everyone was excited even though Rhodes wouldn’t see totality – however I soon got the impression that almost the whole audience was travelling with us to Castellorizo.
After Xenophon’s talk the children performed a play about the Sun and the Moon, finishing with a solar eclipse. I was honoured when my video of the 1999 eclipse was projected as a backdrop for this!
We rose early on eclipse day (Wednesday) to catch the 7am ferry. Down at the port there were crowds, and several boats awaiting departure. Ours was one of the fast catamarans – it would only take us three hours (how long?) to travel the 75 miles to the island. Xenophon told me how a year ago he rang the ferry company. They were only going to run one boat – on the Tuesday! They told him he would have to stay on the island a whole week if he wanted to be there on Wednesday. He tried to convince them to run a boat on the Wednesday – “You won’t believe how many people want to travel on that day”, he told them. Eventually they capitulated and advertised a boat on the web. It was fully booked on the first day. A second boat was fully booked the day after. They eventually filled five boats.
During the journey, the onboard TV showed a programme about the 1999 eclipse. All the emotions and excitement of my first eclipse view came flooding back.
Whilst on the boat I met an American couple. He (the brother) was from Boston and although he had never seen a total eclipse before he knew what to expect. His sister had not, but she lived in Athens and the eclipse provided the perfect excuse for him to leave his wife and five kids behind and visit his sister. He could not have told her much as after listening to us talk for a few minutes she asked us, “So is there a bit us a light show then?”. We both smiled and looked at each other. I turned to her and said, still smiling, “Oh, yes, there’s a bit of a light show!”.
We finally arrived at this very hilly island after skirting the coast of Turkey for over an hour. There were crowds – it was like the end of a football match. It seemed every flat surface was covered with tripods. It was now one hour before first contact. We slowly made our way through the crowds, up to the school where some space had been reserved for us. However, looking at the school courtyard surrounded by buildings I decided I wanted to see more of the sky, particularly the horizon, and so we found a small spot not far away overlooking the bay, with a great view east along the Turkish coast.
The Sun was high in the sky (about 60 degrees). Soon the Moon’s silhouette could be seen eating into the Sun’s disk. I took a look through a Coronado telescope – this shows the Sun in hydrogen alpha light and shows prominences even in daylight. A large one could be seen about three o’clock on the disk. Other astronomers had larger telescopes with solar filters on – they were hoping to image the prominences in great detail during totality. Others had a solar spectrograph and were hoping to measure the temperature of the corona from the Doppler broadening of the spectral lines.
At 13.51 and a few seconds, the pinkish light that had crept upon us over the last 15 minutes could be seen to be fading fast. I glanced down at the floor to my side – something was moving fast – shadow bands!! I had not seen these in Romania and was fascinated. Where was my camera? Where were the bands – they’d gone!
Looking back at the Sun, I could now see the black circle of the Moon as the last small bit of the Sun was shrinking fast to nothing like a distress flare going out. It was now very dark. I took a few photographs, trying to vary my shutter speed – it’s very difficult to see what you’re doing in the dark and I only got a few photos taken before I decided instead to pick up my binoculars and just stare.
The corona was much more asymmetric than in 1999 as at times of solar minimum (as now) the corona shows the Sun’s magnetic field much more. In 1999 we were close to solar maximum and the corona is more isotropic.
After just under three minutes, the diamond ring appeared again and the Sun began to grow again. It was all over.
Back on the boat, we sped back to Rhodes, leaving this beautiful isolated Greek island so close to Turkey that had never seen so many people on it at the same time Everyone was on a high. I met the American guy again – “See you on Easter Island!” (2010) he said, smiling and shaking my hand. He’d got the bug!
Zoomed photos of the prominences and my video coming...