Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)
Solar Total Eclipse, 01 August 2008
A chance to ride on the Trans-Siberian Express en-route to view the solar eclipse was not to be missed, so six intrepid members of OASI plus three friends and partners set off early on Monday 28 July from the notorious Heathrow Terminal 5, expecting never to see our luggage again. Fortunately all turned out well and we were delighted to be reunited with the bags in Moscow five hours later. Queues seemed to be the order of the day in Russia - orderly queues by the Brits and scrums by others! Passports, visas, entry forms and customs declarations later, we arrived at the airport arrivals hall. There we stayed for over an hour - someone had lost a case in the airport. We then split into two parties to board coaches, which were strangely reserved one for couples and one for single people. The first coach set off, followed 90 minutes later by the second. The first coach used the Moscow orbital motorway and was not seen for another three hours! The second coach travelled through the city centre and saw the sights, but still took several hours to cover the relatively short distance to the Hotel Aerostar. Finally we settled down to a fine buffet dinner in the hotel.
Our second day included a tour of Moscow, taking in the Kremlin and its constituent churches. Unfortunately, Red Square was closed to tourists for a civic send-off for the Russian Olympic team. Later, en-route to the railway station, the police pulled over our coach to allow Russian President Medvedev and his cavalcade to pass at very high speed. We finally reached the railway station and the train that was to be our home for the next six days. The train contained fourteen carriages: eight first class sleeping cars, one premium sleeping car (with wash basin), two restaurant cars, one bar/function car and a shower car. There was also a staff accommodation car. Over the six days we were to travel over 5000 kilometres from Moscow to Irkutsk, via the eclipse site at Novosibirsk, crossing the Urals from Europe to Asia.
A typical day on board the train began with reveille at 7.00am, then breakfast between 7.00 and 9.00am. The train then usually pulled into a stopping station between 10.00am and noon. There would be a tour around a city until 5.00pm and then we would be ferried back to the train for dinner in two sittings between 6.00pm and 8.00pm. The dulcet tones of our German train manager, Angelika, kept us informed of what was happening and when. The food on the train was good - indeed, overall, meals in Russia were of a very high standard, but got very repetitive for the vegetarians in the group. Salad, garlic and curried carrots, spiced aubergines, lumps of meat (various) and potatoes kept appearing on the menu, both on the train and elsewhere. Occasional treats of hors d'ouvres such as cavier and olives also appeared. Breakfast on the train was always good! Two very hard-working waitresses served, in random, some or all the following at breakfast time: hard boiled egg, porridge (if you were lucky), cheese, ham and salami (two small slices of each), fruit, yoghurt, chocolate éclairs, sweet cakes, butter ("only for breakfast"), white and black bread, juice ("apple or peach") and tea or coffee (allegedly). One of the waitresses resembled Pat Butcher from the BBC Eastenders programme and the other was a young graduate in railway engineering working during her final vacation. As we were constrained to use only one of the dining cars, we didn't get to meet the waitresses in the other dining car.
I was accommodated in car one. My dining car was car six. This meant that I had to open and close 30 doors on the journey from my accommodation to the dining car. (Other members of OASI had fewer doors en-route.) The door became the common unit of distance on the train: the bar was 42 doors distant and the shower car 48 doors. The shower car was was unique. It contained eight double showers with water that often ran out (despite the tanks being refilled at least twice a day), that usually ran cold (the shower water took 90 minutes to heat after the tanks were filled) and that usually dribbled out of the shower nozzle. At least shower gel and shampoo were provided!
Our first stop was Kazan, gateway to Siberia and the capital of Tartarstan (where the local time was Moscow time, three hours ahead of UK time). We enjoyed a quick tour of the city: a river trip around a garbage scow, the sight of several power stations and then back ashore to visit a beautiful mosque we had seen from the boat. The city itself comprised two divergent sectors: one old and run down and one newly renovated. State funding and tourism were largely responsible for funding the renovations. In the evening, the eclipse tour expert, Dr Peter Catermole, a geologist, presented a talk on the geology of the Ural Mountains.
Second stop was Yekaterinburg (Moscow time +2 hours) where we visited the church marking the site where the last Romanov Tsar and his family were killed in 1918. Although their remains were buried in St Petersburg, a Russian Orthodox church was built in Yekaterinburg in their honour. It was in the church that the wife of a member of OASI (mentioning no names!) lit a candle to ask for a clear sky for the eclipse on the following day. The candle did not begin to work immediately, as the day became overcast, and finally we suffered a downpour, but later the candle began to take effect and clear, sunny weather spread in. After our visit to the church, on the train once more, Peter Catermole presented two lectures on what to do at the eclipse: one for "novices" and one for "experts". Strangely, the two lectures were virtually the same!
Third stop was Novosibirsk (Moscow time +3 hours) on the day of the eclipse. The weather at the beginning of the day was OK - partly cloudy and some sun. After a quick breakfast we boarded our coaches (three coaches for the tour party from the UK plus one coach of Danes who had joined the train at Moscow). First we enjoyed a visit to a geology museum, which was excellent and displayed, among other exhibits, a large collection of meteorites. Unfortunately, the group which I had joined overran its time at the museum and as a result was unable to visit a train museum that the other parties enjoyed. In fact, in the evening we were given the opportunity to take photographs of the train museum through locked gates in darkness - wow! After lunch we all headed to the eclipse site, a fair drive out of Novosibirsk, in a village called Sosnovka on Lake Ob. The weather was good - some high cloud that promised to dissipate, however a lot of rain-bearing cumulus suddenly appeared rapidly spreading in from the north-east. This was just the pattern that the previous few days' weather had promised. The chances of seeing all of the eclipse were dropping rapidly. It was at this point that our coach caught fire - or at least smoke from a burnt-out air conditioning unit flooded into the passenger compartment, necessitating a mass evacuation. We waited beside the stricken coach for a fleet of minibuses to arrive and take us the rest of the way to the eclipse observation site, but there was no sign of them. The eclipse and the cloud drew nearer...
Peter Cattermole suggested that as we were only 5 km from our intended destination, we should prepare to observe from our present location and set up our equipment on the dirt road where our coach had stopped. However the minibuses eventually turned up and the "experts" who needed time to set up their kit, were invited to travel first. The "holidaymakers" would follow later. Eventually, the coach with the faulty air conditioning was able to proceed, and carried the "holidaymakers" closer to our destination, despite now being like a mobile sauna inside.
After a lot of driving around woods and fields trying to locate the advanced party who had travelled in the minibuses, the travellers in the coach with broken air conditioning arrived at the observation site - a field with low grass abutting Lake Ob. There was an on-shore breeze with waves lashing the shingle beach and spray blowing onto our equipment (I knew a plastic bag would come in handy!) The wind even blew my tripod over - I thought the lenses of my video camera were broken, but luckily the UV filter had acted as a sort of break fuse and no harm was done to the lenses. But what of the cloud? It just disappeared - we had a virtually cloudless sky for the whole eclipse. The candle lit at Yekaterinburg had worked! There were a lot of local people at the eclipse site, and one local even had a telescope with a solar filter, but given that the TAL telescope factory is in Novosibirsk I'm surprised there were not more about. There was even a cow in our field. We came up with the idea of studying the effects of the eclipse on its behaviour. Perhaps it would lie down or walk off to be milked, but unfortunately the farmer came to collect it an hour before the eclipse, so we will never know its behaviour during totality!
So what of the eclipse? We were treated to a wonderful two minutes and 20 seconds of totality, with the whole eclipse from 1st contact to 4th contact being cloud free. The corona appeared as a standard solar minimum corona (round, regular and tight-in) with some linear streamers. We saw no shadow bands before or after totality. Mercury and Venus were visible. However, we did not see the other two planets, Saturn and Mars, which should have been visible during totality.
Several of the party bumped into two of the three most successful eclipse chasers alive today: John Beattie (25 clear eclipses) and Jay Pasachoff (26 clear eclipses). John came to have a look at the solarscope I was using to project the solar image.
And so back to dinner in Novosibirsk then back to the train and bar for the post eclipse celebration.
The next day, after waking with a sore head, we headed for the fourth stop at Krasnoyarsk (Moscow time +4 hours). Before we arrived, Pieter Morpurgo (a former producer of the BBC Sky at Night programme) treated us to a talk of anecdotes about working with Patrick Moore on TV assignments around the world. Eventually we started our town tour, during which we saw another Kremlin, more domed churches, more statues of Lenin and more impressive railway stations... but I was becoming jaded by this time! Then we set off on a 45 minute cruise on the River Yenisseij. The first group set off on the river and didn't come back - they broke down. Their cruise turned into a 90 minute ride of about 400 metres. We in the second group were very uncertain whether we should set off, despite assurances that the boat was now repaired. In the end we did cast off and then spent 45 minutes 100 metres off the pier keeping pace against the fast flowing tide. Then it was back to the train and the bar!
The final train destination was Irkutsk (Moscow time +5hours). After a final breakfast and a "tipping everybody" session, we disembarked for the final time. It rained. We got wet, and our bags, which went on before us, got wet too. Our day-long coach tour of the city was a waste of time as the windows of the coach were steamed up and it was raining so hard that not much would have been visible even if the windows had been clear! The local tour guide (the best English speaker to date) was intrepid: we had paid for walks around the city and, deluge or not, we were going to enjoy them. Some of us stood (or rather sat) firm in the dry, but others went on in the rain to take more photos of domed churches, statues of Lenin and another impressive railway station. Eventually we were allowed in to the former state controlled "In Tourist" hotel, which had apparently been recently renovated. On our floor, "renovation" meant that new carpet had been laid over broken tiles or cobbles that cracked as you walked over them. A woman sat at a desk by the lift on each floor; she held residents' keys when they left the hotel, she sold water and other goodies and she was the person through whom telephone calls could be made. The rooms here were OK, but definitely had the feeling, from a former era, of microphones being present in the lampshades! The pillows were lumpy too! However the great redeeming feature was the London Bar, where we consumed copious quantities of London Stout and Newcastle Brown. The London Bar even had a miniature red telephone box. We spent the second day at Irkutsk on a coach ride to the shores of Lake Baikal and a pretty little village consisting mainly of dachas or holiday homes for the folk of Irkutsk. Here we had time to chill and shop at the market (according to the brochure). Hah! The market consisted of a house clearance stall, twenty identical tables of local tourist tat (animals made from the local mineral, stackable dolls etc) and a bar full of locals that stared at you if you dared to look in. We did, however, find a relatively pleasant little cafe to while away our free time here. Legend has it that anyone who bathes in the water of Lake Baikal will look 10 years younger. I can tell you from experience that this does not work! On the way home to Irkutsk we stopped for a badly kept secret folklore evening - a dinner interspersed with local singers and dancers, who turned out to be surprisingly good. The restaurant was in the middle of a muddy, wooded trail and small zoological garden, although this only appeared to house a couple of deer. One local told me that they had had a wild bear there a few weeks before but it had been taken away. On the way back along the muddy trail to the coaches four of us spotted an easier method of transport - a Russian troika (cart pulled by three horses) - it looked like great fun.
The next morning our long trek home began. Our journey started on a chartered Caucasus Mineral Water Airways flight to Moscow (Mineral Water is a place in the Caucasus). This flight was late arriving (bearing in mind it brought our tickets with it) and this caused some anxiety with regard to the connecting flight from Moscow back to London. As a result, our dinner and city tour around Moscow were cancelled, not with too much regret as the so-called snack on the flight was very filling. I also found time to sample some Turkmenistan dumplings and some caviar sushi at Moscow Airport. A long day later, after 20 hours travelling, we arrived at Heathrow at 6.00pm (BST). We then had to travel home, which added another three or four hours to the day. At least the baggage didn't get lost anywhere along the way!
John Wainwright observed from East Ipswich using a Skywatcher Explorer 203 mm F5 reflector. To record images he used a Canon 350D at prime focus with a T2 thread adapter and an 8 mm Baader planetarium "Hyperion" eyepiece (8° FoV) into a 50 mm adapter at the focuser. John set the camera to ISO 100 and used various exposure times from 1/350th to 1/20th of a second. He missed first contact due to cloud cover. He recorded the following image near the time of maximum eclipse.
Martin Cook, observing from East Ipswich, took several photographs of the eclipse, including the following near the time of maximum eclipse.
Near maximum eclipse.
See Fred Espenak's eclipse web site eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html.