The Longest Total Solar Eclipse – If you missed it, catch the next one in 2132!?
Posted by dorian on July 23, 2009
Millions gather to watch solar eclipse in Asia
Tens of thousands of people — from internationally renowned astrophysicists to farmers — descended on the muddy little village of Taregna in northern India this morning. They came to watch the best solar eclipse of the 21st century from what was predicted to be one of the finest vantage points on the planet.
There was only one problem: when the key moment came, it was cloudy.
The luxuriously thick monsoon season cloud cover that had formed over the village overnight obscured any view of the heavens from the moment “first contact” was made between the moon’s shadow and the sun to the point of totality — when the Sun was completely obscured and the sky rapidly turned black.
Over Teregna, where every rooftop was populated with throngs of spectators as the Sun appeared to set just an hour after rising, the blackout lasted three minutes and 38 seconds. The descent into darkness was met with whooping and hollering from a massive crowd, who had spent an hour listening to a state-sponsored lecture seeking to dispel the belief that eclipses portend ill fortune.
But the return of daylight was met with bigger cheers.
Thousands had also gathered at the ancient Altar of the Sun in Beijing, while hundreds of millions poured into streets across China to gaze as the sky darkened from the west of the country and along a track that followed the Yangtze River before slipping out to sea from Shanghai.
Briton Shelagh Lester Smith had made the journey to Shanghai for the once-in-a-lifetime sight of such a long total eclipse. She stood in the pouring rain at a park surrounded by hundreds of other enthusiasts and said that they were still able to glimpse the eclipse despite the cloud cover. She said: “It was very exciting. It felt like the end of the world had come.”
Anxious to avoid panic among farmers perplexed by the disappearance of the morning sun or accidents as streets darkened, China’s State Council — or Cabinet — issued a special directive to local government departments to take additional measures. They turned on street lights and even provided special lighting at Shanghai Zoo in case animals took fright.
The eclipse was the longest that could be observed in China between 1814 and 2309 and was visible in its totality over an area 250km wide and 10,000km long. One astronomer said he had been waiting 40 years for this day.
Standing on the large marble platform that is the 16th-century altar where the emperor would make ritual sacrifices to the sun in Beijing, hundreds watched the penumbra. One middle-aged man said: “I’m happy I stayed despite the clouds because I saw it and it was very impressive. This is a rare chance in someone’s life.”
Across India, millions had gathered. For the most part, astrologers’ predictions of disaster did not come true. But a 65-year-old woman was killed in a stampede at Varanasi, a sacred city on the banks of the Ganges, where devout Hindus had gathered to bathe.
“It was still a unique experience with morning turning into night for more than three minutes,” said Amitabh Pande, a scientist with India’s Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators, in Taregna as it began to drizzle.
“It would have been nice to see the solar eclipse but the rain is far more important for us,” said Ram Naresh Yadav, a farmer.
In Beijing, a thick blanket of greyish smog blotted out the sky and virtually obscured all high-rises in the downtown area of the Chinese capital.
In coastal Shanghai, eclipse watchers were disappointed by a light drizzle in the morning. Dozens of people had gathered at one hotel rooftop with telescopes and special glasses.
At a Buddhist temple in the Thai capital Bangkok, dozens of monks led a mass prayer at a Buddhist temple to ward off what they said would be ill effects.
In India, the preceding night had brought a carnival atmosphere to the small village of Teregna, a collections of low-rise buildings on the plains of the Ganges.
Shrieks of mirth had erupted from a bus packed with students of the Radiant Public School when The Times asked if they were looking forward to the eclipse. “We have special glasses and everything,” said Preeti, 12. “It’s going to be amazing.”
This morning, by way of consolation for missing the moment of totality, those who travelled to Taregna did get a glimpse of the Sun when just a sliver of the Moon’s shadow still blocked it.
“We were not able to see the total eclipse. But we were able to see part of it, so I am not totally disappointed,” said Karan Singh, a software engineer and amateur astronomer, who had made the 700km (430 mile) journey from Delhi.
The previous night, anxious eclipse chasers had looked to the skies, willing them to clear. According to Indian meteorological data gathered over 20 years, Taregna had the best chance of clear skies anywhere along the eclipse’s “path of totality”.
Even so, there had been a 60-70 per cent chance of cloud. “Indian meteorological data is famously unreliable,” one scientist told The Times. “Who can possibly predict the weather?”
He admitted that he was in Taregna as much for its historical associations as the weather.
The village is said to be where Arya Bhata, the most renowned Indian astronomer of antiquity, observed the heavens.
Some believe that Bhata invented the concept of “zero” here. He was also made some of the earliest accurate predictions of when eclipses would occur.
Above the clouds occurred events that will not be matched for another 123 years.
The eclipse began in the Arabian Sea. The band of complete darkness, known as the “path of totality”, first hit the western Indian state of Gujarat shortly before 6.30am local time.
The shadow then raced — at 15 times the speed of sound — across the subcontinent, slicing through the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the sacred Ganges, before reaching Nepal and blacking out much of Bhutan. After clipping Bangladesh and travelling through Burma, it was expected to engulf a swath of China, before hitting the ocean once more off Shanghai.
The trajectory, across the world’s two most populated countries, is likely to have made it the most widely experienced eclipse in history, according to Nasa scientists, with an estimated two billion people cast into total or partial darkness.
But it was the duration of the blackout that made this eclipse extraordinary. Over the Pacific Ocean, the sun disappeared for six minutes and 39 seconds, a duration that will not be matched until the year 2132.
Fred Espenak, the American astrophysicist regarded as the global doyen of eclipse chasers, termed the event “a monster”.
The rest of the day will tell whether astrologists’ predictions of disaster will come true.
Many of India’s 850 million Hindus regard eclipses as a triumph of evil over good, as Rahu the demon swallows Surya the sun god. The nation’s soothsayers had forecast terror attacks, financial meltdowns, political strife and even the outbreak of war.
Britain has not been immune to such superstitions: “These late eclipses in the Sun and Moon portend no good to us,” says Gloucester in King Lear. Similar misgivings across China — where a sun-eating dragon has historically been held responsible — mean a sizeable portion of the world’s population will think twice before getting out of bed this morning.
Rhys Blakely and Sophie Yu