2008 Solar Eclipse - Trip to Novosibirsk.
In astronomy, there are many types of people in the hobby with many levels of interests. Some go out to dark sites and watch the stars and planets go by, others are happy to sit in a nice warm armchair and read up on the latest discoveries. There is, however, a small group of astronomers that some might say are crazy. They travel to distant and God-forsaken parts of the world, breaking baggage weight allowances at every airport they encounter, sometimes risking life and limb to get there.
‘There’ being a particular point on the earths surface when for the briefest of minuets they can stand in the shadow of the Moon during a Total Solar Eclipse.
These astronomers are often called (along with crazy!) ‘Eclipse Chasers’.
Solar eclipses happen on average twice a year, often at places, which are totality inhospitable or impossible to get to such as the Antarctic or mid Pacific Ocean. Every now and then they pass over a stretch of land that you might be able to get to, but then the weather might get the better of you.
Once a month the Sun and the Moon pass each other in the sky, but during an eclipse the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun and by a complete fluke of nature the Moon is very slightly bigger then the Sun as seen from here, so it completely blocks it out. Daytime turns to a dark twilight as the shadow cast by the moon races thousand of miles across the surface of the Earth at nearly 3000kph. This thin shadow can be less then 60 miles wide so you need to be within a few miles of the centre of this path to get the best effect and this is where ‘eclipse chasers’ aim to be.
The problem with a solar eclipse is that once you have seen one, you want to see more. Solar eclipses by their nature are fleeting and last at most 8 minutes, on average between 2 and 4 minutes. Back in 1999, I chased that eclipse spending a week in Paris and then travelling to the city of Metz on the day hoping to view the solar eclipse at that time. Unfortunately, it was clouded over and I missed it. This is the chance that eclipse chasers take. It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm and in May 2006, a group of us from Shannonside Astronomy Club in Limerick, travelled to Antalya in Turkey to view the solar eclipse there, (taking in a weeks holidays to boot) We were fortunate enough to see it on that occasion.
It was no sooner over when we were planning our next eclipse trip. We looked up when the next solar eclipse would be and saw it was starting in the Artic, going through Siberia and on to Mongolia finishing up in China. At first we laughed this off
As being too remote an eclipse to travel to, but, after a little more investigation we found out that one of Russia’s biggest cities was slap bang in the middle of the eclipse path! The city, Novosibirsk, was one of the Soviet Unions centre for nuclear research and you would not have found it on any map thirty years ago. Not exactly a popular tourist destination!
Yet we discovered Siberian Airlines fly out of Dublin to Moscow and then from Moscow to Novosibirsk. We then found hotels in both cities, so the trip looked viable. The real obstacle with this eclipse was the weather. The odds of clear skies were 50/50 and many people backed out when they discovered this, in the end just two of us from the club that decided to go. Yours truly and our club secretary Frank Ryan.
Frank took little convincing to go as he had caught the eclipse-chasing bug after viewing the 1999 eclipse from a ship off the coast of Brittany. So we booked the flights and hotels and got Russian visas (after a monster paper trail!) from the embassy in Dublin early this year.
So at 3pm on Wednesday the 30th of July, laden with astronomical & photographic gear and pretty much nothing else we headed off for Dublin stopping over in Monasterevin to pick up two more eclipse chasers. Michael O Connell, a member of Tullamore astronomy club and his wife Denise, this made up our group of four and we headed to the airport to catch out late night flight to Moscow.
I was unable to sleep on the plane and the last thing we all needed was the hour long queue at visa control at Moscow airport at five in the morning, a bureaucracy that seems to have its roots back in the Soviet times. Once through we collected our bags went for breakfast and waited for our 11.45am flight to Novosibirsk. Surprisingly that flight came on us very quickly, the security was certainly thorough getting onto the plane, you had to step into a chamber where 2 rotating poles whirled around you, it was like something out of star trek, it was in fact an all body x-ray machine and also gave a body image, not one for the modest and I’d bet such a machine would be illegal in the west and if you travelled there often I wouldn’t fancy the consequences of all those x-ray doses. Still, you knew there was no chance of anything untoward getting on the plane with this system in place.
During the flight we noted that below us was almost blanket cloud the entire was between Moscow and Novosibirsk and at this stage a small bit of doubt started to creep in regarding the wisdom of the trip. We arrived in Novosibirsk at 6pm (midday Irish time), sleep deprived and shattered only to discover that the hire car was nowhere to be seen. The car hire company had no office there so we had to ring their offices in Ireland to find out what was going on, while doing this we discovered that taxis were extremely cheep so we took the opportunity to cancel that car. The hour long taxi journey to the hotel cost about 7 euros each, so we were very fortunate that the rental car fell through as it was a lot more expensive. Even though they drive on the right hand side of the road, many of the cars (including out taxi) had the driver on the right hand side, like it is here. We’re at a loss to explain that little quirk. This made the taxi trip an interesting experience along the city ring road, although or ex KGB looking driver was never phased by the trucks sound the horn as we drove on the wrong side of the road in some mad overtaking manoeuvre. That evening we unpacked at the 1960s Soviet looking hotel, got food and got some badly needed sleep.
The next morning we met up with some Greek astronomers and we worked out a plan to get to a good location to view the eclipse. A few weeks prior to this trip we had travelled to Greece at their request to be guests at the Mount Parnon Starparty. It was strange to meet up with our new friends in such a odd setting but it made the next few hours all the more fun. We decided on a site which was 50 km away on the north coast of the Ob Sea. This is a 200km long reservoir for the hydroelectric power station for Novosibirsk. Our initial plan was to travel southeast on the main ‘Highway’, which eventually led into the China / Mongolia border. Although we had not intention of going that far we did hear reports of American astronomers that had equipment confiscated and even reports of arrests because they did not have proper visas! We had hired a taxi to be with us for the entire day costing only 20 euros each. On the way there, the sky started to seriously cloud over, our hearts were starting to really sink. At the site it was blanket cloud! At one stage we seriously considered going back to the city but we decided to give it a while, as it seemed that the clouds might be starting to break. After some frantic and at times heated debate, the clouds did indeed break and an hour before the eclipse started there sky was completely clear, a miracle if ever I saw one!
At 4:43PM, cheers went up from our small group sounding the beginning of the eclipse. We observed a tiny black bite appearing on the side of the Sun as the Moon started its transit. Half an hour later over half of the Sun had disappeared. Our anticipation was building fast as our surroundings were now starting to take on a very strange colour and dark hue. The best way I can describe it is that it was like a heavily overcast day with strong colours yet there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Half an hour later again, all that was left of the Sun was a very thin crescent. Then suddenly, the Sun was transformed into a pinpoint source of light as the moon started to fully block it out. As the last remnants of sunlight peeped through the craters and valleys on the Moon, for a few seconds we were treated to an awe inspiring sight called “the diamond ring”. Then, as the shadow of the Moon totally engulfed us, the Light levels dropped as if someone turned down the dial on a light. The Sun disappeared completely leaving only the suns atmosphere (Corona) visible. Fiery red prominences exploding off the surface of the Sun leading into white wisps of ejected matter stretching and twisting millions of miles out into space. It is without question one of the most breath taking views in nature. We could see a very dark blue sky, with a dark dusk yellow all along the horizon. A jet-black disk surrounded by an eerie glow is located where the sun should be flanked in a row by the now quite visible planets Mercury, Venus, Mars and Saturn. At this stage the local wildlife began to behave very strangely. Dogs in the distance howled skywards and some birds in the nearby forest decided it was time to return to roost for the ‘night’ and flew across the eclipsed Sun, it was very dramatic!
The temperature drop was sharp and it actually got noticeably colder during totality. An eclipse wind was also felt, adding to the spookiness of the experience. Two minutes ten seconds later it is over in a flash as the Sun starts to re-appear and light levels rocket up as if someone is tuning up the dial on a sitting room light.
All too soon the greatest show on Earth was over.
We celebrated the occasion with some Russian vodka and wishing good luck to the next eclipse. Over the next hour we continued to watch the moon leave the face of the sun. Our Russian drivers (who hadn’t a word of English) must have thought we were totally crazy. Here are these western Europeans who have come all the way to Novosibirsk to end up driving on dirt roads next to some remote lake. Who knows what they were thinking! It seemed like they only realised what we were there for when the eclipse got underway.
We met an Irish group who had flown to Moscow and got the trans-Siberian train to Novosibirsk, a two-day train trip. We also met a group from South Africa there, their journey made ours look like a short excursion, they couldn’t believe we didn’t use a package deal, had no interpreter and had no more then three words of Russian between us. On the way back to the city, it clouded over again and we all commented on just how lucky we were with the weather. That night we all went to a restaurant where they served many Russian brews, surprisingly they also had Guinness so we felt quite at home. On the way back, we stayed overnight in Moscow and had time to visit Red Square, a nice little bonus on the trip.
On the flights home we passed the time planning our next solar eclipse trip which is on the east coast of China. Some are considering going to Shanghai while others are going on a dedicated eclipse cruise ship that brings you east of Japan where the weather prospects are a lot better. Whoever said these trips are cheap!
From Ireland, we were told by our club members that all that was visible for the eclipse was a small ‘chunk’ of the Sun blocked out, a 20% partial eclipse. Things get better in 2015 when on March 20th a 90% partial eclipse will be visible. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until Sept 23rd 2090 for the next total solar eclipse to be visible from Ireland. I hope our club will have an article in the Limerick Leader on the weekends before each of these events, but I suspect the latter will probably have a different author!
Article written by Dave Lillis.
SAC Club Team in Novosibirsk:
Frank Ryan Jr. Club Secretary
Dave Lillis Club Observing Director
Eclipse track across Siberia
Detail of eclipse track across Novosibirsk
Eclipse viewing site by the Ob Sea
Composite showing the Eclipse sequence - Frank Ryan Jr
Detail eclipse sequence - Frank Ryan Jr
Totality - Dave Lillis
Totality - Dave Lillis
Diamond Ring - Dave Lillis
Post eclipse celebrations