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Solar Total Eclipse, 14 November 2012

Paul Whiting, FRAS, Cairns

Given the vast distance to Australia to view the solar eclipse on 14 November 2012, we packed a bumper holiday around the event. Two weeks of getting drenched in Singapore, soaked in Perth and wet along the Observatory highway did not bode well for the eclipse. The weather circulating the continent seemed to follow us on our venture from west coast to east coast. Even crossing the Nullarbor plain for three days by train saw storms either ahead of us or just behind us. So it was with great trepidation that we arrived in Cairns a few days before the eclipse only to find it raining. However two days before the eclipse the dawn was virtually cloud free, and the eclipse was an immediate post-dawn affair. The following morning was a totally different matter, with much cloud and rain. So it was very difficult to predict where we should go to view the eclipse or indeed to estimate our chances of success.

In the end we decided to stay put at the hotel in Palm Cove just north of Cairns, and walk down to the beach to view. It was an early start, meeting at 4.30am to walk down to the beach en masse. Even then there were hundreds of locals lining the spectacular beach overlooking the Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, it was still dark and Venus was shining like a beacon above the waves. There was a little cloud but it looked as though we might be successful. However as the Sun rose an hour or so later, the clouds started to line up and blow inland over our heads, obscuring our view. The cloud grew thicker as the eclipse began and we thought that we would not see totality. We tried to make the most of the fleeting glimpses of the partial phase that appeared from time to time from behind the clouds, but the prize seemed out of reach. Just as we had resigned ourselves to our fate, a minor miracle occurred and a gap appeared in the clouds, just large enough to enable us to see the entirety of the total eclipse, with only some wispy high-level cloud passing by. After third contact the cloud returned, but we were still able to see occasional glimpses of the remainder of the eclipse.

As usual, I took a video of the total phase, but the age of the camera, and especially of the batteries, is beginning to show. A fully charged battery lasted the two minutes three seconds duration of the eclipse before cutting out just after the diamond ring at third contact. Lucky or what? Next time I will retire the 18-year-old hi8 and instead use my new DSLR camera.

As expected with an eclipse taking place at the peak of a solar cycle, the corona was flat and regular around the solar disc, and contained much fine magnetic structure. Another amazing sight was the incredible display of shadow bands following the eclipse. These could be seen rippling along the beach for about 10 seconds immediately after third contact. This is only the second time I've seen shadow bands, and this was a better display than the first time in the Sahara desert during the 2006 eclipse. This sky became quite dark during totality but only Saturn was clearly visible to the naked eye reasonably close to the Sun.

I tried something new during the eclipse. I measured the shade temperature from first contact to approaching fourth contact, at one minute intervals. The graph is below. Cloud cover and a sharp breeze explain the minor variations in temperature, but the upward trend of the daytime warming can be seen, together with the drop in temperature around totality.

The rest of the holiday saw visits to various observatories from Perth to Sydney and professional observatories including Parkes, the AAT at Siding Springs, the Australian radio telescope at Narrabri and the Mount Pleasant Radio Telescope near Hobart.

We also found a house for sale, complete with fully fitted observatory and 14 inch telescope, near Coonabarrabran, the so-called astronomical capital of Australia, for a mere AU$550,000. Any offers?

20121114_totality_PJW.jpg Totality.

20121114_beach_PJW.jpg Crowds line the beach in the early morning.

20121114_graph_PJW.gif Temperature in the shade during the eclipse.

Nigel Evans, Cairns

500 mm lens at f/8, ISO 400. Exposure times as shown.


More Information on Eclipses

See Fred Espenak's eclipse web site eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html.