Star Points for May, 2006; by Curtis Roelle
The 2006 Total Solar Eclipse

This year's only total solar eclipse took place on March 29. I spent four minutes standing in the moon's shadow as it swept across the Libyan desert in north Africa blocking the light from the Noon- time sun.

One week earlier my wife and I had boarded an Italian ship in Genoa for a Mediterranean cruise that traveled 3,116 nautical miles in 13 days. It made stops at Italian cities on the coasts of the peninsula and Sicily as well as other countries including Malta, Egypt and four days at various destinations in Libya.

Before talking about the eclipse let me mention some of the ancient sites we saw. Naturally, there were the pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza in Egypt. The only rain we saw during the entire trip were showers and thunder showers in the Egyptian desert.

Another interesting destination was the Roman ruins at the city of Pompeii that was destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. The city remained buried in ash until it was rediscovered in the 1700s.

But the most interesting ruins was at a site in Libya that I had not heard of before. The city of Leptis Magna was a bustling Roman Mediterranean port founded by the Phoenicians and was not excavated until the latter half of the 20th century. Because it had been buried by sand the city remains in remarkably good condition considering its age.

Now onto the eclipse. Total solar eclipses are not all that rare. The previous one occurred only 11 months before.

What is exceptionally rare is the probability that a total eclipse will occur at a particular location on earth. Take the entire continental United States for instance. The last time the path of a total solar eclipse crossed any of it was back in 1979. We are in a period during which there will not be another total solar eclipse in any of the 48 states for 38 years until 2017!

There are some close calls. In 1984 Maryland was in the path of an annular (or "ring") solar eclipse. But since the moon was at a point in its orbit farther away from us it appeared smaller and didn't completely block the sun. A bright ring of sunlight was still visible and therefore the eclipse was not total.

Another annular eclipse crossed the country in 1994. From Maryland the moon blocked more than 80% of the sun. At no point along the path during that eclipse was there enough coverage for the sun's corona to be visible at all.

What this all means is that anyone who wants to see a total solar eclipse without waiting for decades or centuries must travel -- and sometimes to far flung areas. In 2006 the path of the eclipse crossed the Brazilian coastline, the Atlantic Ocean, Africa, the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Black Sea, and southern Russia.

So that was how we came to find ourselves in the Sahara Desert 100 miles south of the Libyan port city of Tobruk. In World War II the "desert rats" defended the port during a siege by the Nazis. Our observing location was deep inside territory then controlled by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

But now this once dangerous stark and desolate stretch of desert was teeming with humanity, invaded by eclipse watchers from all over the world. From our ship observers from 23 countries spilled out onto the sand. It was a lovely spring day, totally clear, with mild temperatures.

Once the equipment was set up we waited for the partial phases to begin. Our equipment included digital and video cameras with a 300 mm telephoto lens on each plus a 20 power spotting scope for visual observing. Each instrument was equipped with proper filtration.

"First Contact" is when the leading edge of the moon takes the first nick out of the sun. This occurs about 70 minutes before totality. As the moon progresses across its face the sun goes from being a disc to a crescent that resembles the grinning smile of a Cheshire cat.

About 20 minutes before totality the planet Venus had become clearly visible in the western sky. As the crescent shrinks to a narrow slit the moon's shadow is visible engulfing the blue sky appearing as a much deeper shade of blue. As projected onto the earth, the shadow is an oval 117 by 105 miles across speeding along the ground straight for us at 1,664 miles per hour.

The light from the sun has grown very weak and I wonder if this is what an extraterrestrial panorama would be like far away from the sun. The reddish sand of the desert floor is completely littered with small rocks. Deja Vu, haven't we seen this before? Yes, in images beamed back to earth snapped by rovers wheeling over the surface of the planet Mars.

Now the last of the sun's photosphere is disappearing between the mountains. This is known as 2nd contact. A new ruby colored crescent presses against the moon's leading edge. This is the sun's outer atmosphere, or chromosphere. Reddish pink prominences extend a short distance outward from the moon like dragon tongues.

As the dark blue sky darkens the corona appears -- hairlike with wisps both long and short. Several coronal steamers stretch out for about two solar diameters.

I click a few photographs and look up. Since the sun is totally covered no more eye protection is needed. The filters have been removed from cameras and the telescope. My wife lets me take a turn at the telescope.

The detail visible in the telescope is indescribable. The moon appears as a black orb against the intricate pearly colored background of the corona.

It's time to re-center the sun on the video screen and take a few more images. Then it's back to the telescope again.

Four minutes after it began comes 3rd contact and the total eclipse ends. The moon's shadow can still be seen as it is receding in the distance. The partial phases will continue on for over another hour until the whole show ends at 4th contact.

Was it all worth it? Fifteen days spent in foreign lands for four minutes of totality? The answer is itself a question. When will the next eclipse be?

There are no more total solar eclipses this year and none will occur in 2007. In August 2008 a total solar eclipse begins within the Arctic Circle in Canada at sunrise. It passes near the north pole, crosses northern Greenland, and ends in China. Maximum duration: 2 minutes 27 seconds.

It is doubtful that I'll attend that one but who knows. The Libyan eclipse was my 4th total solar eclipse. I don't know when or where I will see my next one, but if possible the 2006 total solar eclipse will not be my last.

If you'd like to see a total solar eclipse someday you will likewise need to travel. Even if you want to see a total solar eclipse in Maryland you will still need to travel to the far western pan handle, in 2099.

2006 total solar eclipse montage
Montage of images from the March 29 total solar eclipse taken by Curtis Roelle from a desert location in Libya.